T notes: Keolis posts best on-time month

MBTA revenues lagging behind forecasts; Should T police handle fare checks?

THE MBTA’S COMMUTER RAIL rail system in December posted its best on-time performance month in the last 4½ years, with trains delivering passengers within five minutes of the scheduled arrival time an average of 93.2 percent of the time.

The Fairmount and Greenbush lines had the highest on-time performance, averaging 98.3 and 98 percent, respectively, in December. The Fitchburg and Providence lines were the worst performing, averaging 88.4 and 89.1 percent, respectively. On a passenger-weighted basis, more than 90 percent of the system’s passengers arrived on time during December.

Officials said the improving numbers are a reflection of a number of short-term fixes that are having an impact and longer-range initiatives that should continue to improve performance over the coming years. The Worcester and Haverhill lines, the focus of intense efforts by Keolis Commuter Services  to improve service over the last couple years, had their best years since 2014. Worcester’s average on-time performance for the year was 87.5 percent, while Haverhill was 90.3 percent

Quoting sources, CommonWealth reported on Friday that passenger traffic on the commuter rail system is up more than 20 percent since 2012. MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak didn’t dispute those numbers on Monday, but he said they would be discussed at the board’s January 28 meeting. T officials have indicated they may need to purchase additional passenger coaches to accommodate higher commuter rail ridership.

Commuter rail is the one MBTA service where ridership is increasing. In a budget presentation on Monday, T officials said commuter rail fare revenue was up $4.7 million through the first six months of this fiscal year, while other travel modes were down – subway by $4.7 million, bus by $2.6 million, and light rail by $1.6 million.

Brian Shortsleeve, who rides the Worcester line into Boston, said the trains seem more crowded than usual. “It feels busy,” he said. “The trains feel to me as packed as they’ve ever been.”

T on track to meet budget targets

MBTA officials on Monday said they are on track to meet budget targets for this fiscal year as long as wage and non-wage expenses are held in check over the next six months.

Through the first six months, expenses overall were running $7.7 million below what had been forecasted, while revenues were off of forecasted levels by the exact same amount. Debt service costs were $7.1 million below forecast.

On the revenue side, investment income and a legal settlement boosted revenues $9 million higher than expected. That increase helped offset a $4.2 million overall decline in fare revenue through the first six months. The T’s own-source revenue held steady compared to last year, but was $12 million off from forecasted levels, with parking revenue down $6 million and advertising revenue down $7 million.

Two areas of concern on the expense side are pension costs ($6 million above forecast through the first six months) and paratransit service ($4 million over budget).

Preparations for next year’s budget begin later this month. Members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board have indicated in the past that they plan to hike fares starting July 1. Steve Poftak, the T’s general manager, said any fare increase proposal would probably be unveiled at the control board’s January 28 meeting.

Who should handle fare checks?

Several members of the T Riders Union urged the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday to take fare enforcement out of the hands of T police officers once the transit system embraces an automated fare collection system allowing passengers to board Green Line and commuter rail trains by tapping cards against counters at vehicle doors.

Will Justice of the Riders Union said having T police making sure riders have paid will escalate tensions. “For a lot of us, seeing police is a trigger,” he said.

Under current law, T police and inspectors are in charge of fare enforcement, but T General Manager Steve Poftak said the transit authority has made no final determination on who should handle that responsibility under AFC (for Automated Fare Collection) 2.0.

“The T is in the process of developing its policies around AFC 2.0, and fare enforcement is one of the areas we’re looking at,” he said.

Perseverance pays off

Richard Prone of Duxbury has come to countless meetings of the Fiscal and Management Control Board to advocate for later service on the Old Colony line so South Shore residents could use the commuter rail to making outings to Boston without having to catch an early train home.

On Monday, T officials suggested one option would be to push back times for the existing inbound and outbound trains to allow for later departures from Boston. Under the proposal, last trains would leave South Stations roughly an hour later – mostly in the 11:20 to 11:40 p.m. range – on the Greenbush, Middleboro, and Kingston/Plymouth lines.

T officials said the service change would not require new equipment, but it would increase service hours and staff time. The T estimated the total cost of the service change would be $150,000 to $200,000 more per year. “It is not strictly a rescheduling of trains. There is an incremental cost,” said Steve Poftak, the T’s general manager.

The schedule change will be considered later this year as part of a broader discussion about commuter rail schedules.

Bus route changes coming

The MBTA plans to unveil 47 proposals affecting 63 of the transit agency’s 180 routes later this month as part of the agency’s Better Bus Project.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

T officials gave a preview of coming attractions on Monday, announcing that one proposal would do away with the CT1 route that runs between Central Square in Cambridge and Boston Medical Center and consolidate it with Route 1 that runs between Harvard Square and Dudley Station.

Officials said the two routes overlap for much of their distance. By consolidating them into one, all of the equipment can be deployed on the single route with the hope of making the service more reliable.