Should we still call it ‘commuter’ rail?
New schedules feature regular service throughout day
THE MBTA is launching a fairly radical change to its commuter rail operations on April 5, running fewer trains at the traditional morning and evening peaks and spreading service out at regular intervals over the course of the day – what some call regional rail.
On the Framingham-Worcester line, trains currently depart from Worcester for Boston at 5:30 a.m., 7 a.m., and 8:50 a.m. and then run at roughly two-hour intervals the rest of the day. Under the new approach starting April 5, the first train from Worcester will depart at 4:15 a.m., the next train at 5 a.m., and then trains will depart every hour on the hour for the rest of the day until 7 p.m. The three late-night trains will depart at 8:20, 9:20, and 10:20.
The idea behind the scheduling experiment is that COVID has disrupted ridership patterns. No one is quite sure what riders will want in the future, but the feeling is that they will no longer rigidly commute into work in the morning and return in the evening. They want more flexibility and greater frequency. And they want schedules that are easy to remember.
The new approach is also more efficient to operate because trains aren’t bunched together at certain times of the day. It was this efficiency that allowed the T to “permanently furlough” nearly 40 conductors and assistant conductors, a move that was reversed late last week after pressure from US Rep. Stephen Lynch and the rest of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. Lynch was outraged that the T was laying off people and cutting service after receiving $1 billion in federal aid under the American Rescue Plan.
While MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak agreed on Friday to halt any layoffs, he was less forthcoming about restoring all services that had been cut. He said he would ramp up service initially by adding unscheduled subway trains and buses and adding staff to replace those workers lost through attrition. But he was vague about what will happen with ferry service and weekend commuter rail service, which has been canceled on all but five lines.“This is an overall approach that will ramp up MBTA service as quickly as possible, preserve staffing levels, and maintain the MBTA’s commitment to offer appropriate levels of service as the public returns to transit in a post-pandemic world,” said Poftak in a letter on Friday to Lynch.
What is an appropriate level of service is unclear. Overall, the T’s bus, subway, and commuter rail ridership is roughly a third of what it was prior to the pandemic while service levels are much higher. Commuter rail is perhaps the hardest hit MBTA service. As of April 5, the T will offer 89 percent of the commuter rail service it did prior to the pandemic even though ridership is only 12 percent of pre-pandemic levels.