T notes: Is Keolis starting to turn a corner?

Uber, Lyft big hit with paratransit riders; Silver Line speedup

THE TREND LINES for commuter rail service are moving in a positive direction aside from a major setback during the severe cold spell in early January.

Commuter rail officials are systematically documenting what’s causing delays and working to address them line by line. Locomotive and coach availability is hitting acceptable levels. Revenue is trending upward without an increase in fares and Keolis Commuter Services is about to launch a marketing effort to convince more people to use commuter rail to come into Boston on weekends and to reverse-commute to employment opportunities on the Worcester and Lowell lines during the week.

Dan Grabauskas, a consultant brought in by the T to oversee commuter rail, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday that February is shaping up to be the commuter rail system’s best February in five years, with more than 92 percent of trains arriving on time, which is defined as within five minutes of the scheduled arrival.

The February results would be the highest for the commuter rail system in a year. Between February 2017 and January 2018, on-time performance for the system as a whole topped 90 percent during five months, ranged between 85 percent and 90 percent during six months, and hit 83.9 percent in January when severe cold hampered performance and storm surge knocked out service on some lines north of Boston.

A line-by-line effort to improve performance appears to be paying dividends. The Worcester Line has gone from being the system’s worst-performing line to one of its best. The Haverhill line has made gains more slowly, but on-time performance is improving. The Fitchburg line is next up in April or May.

T officials said commuter rail revenue was up 3.4 percent from July through December last year before taking a .2 percent dip in January when passenger traffic tumbled. February is expected to show gains again.

David Scorey, general manager at Keolis, believes part of the revenue increase is coming about because of a relatively new program to make sure people boarding trains at North, South, and Back Bay stations have their ticket in hand. He said the tickets of an estimated 670,000 passengers have been checked and that number should grow as the program is broadened at Back Bay and South Station.

Scorey said it’s difficult to guage the impact of the ticket-checking procedure, but he thinks it is having a positive impact. He said 150 invalid tickets have been seized and the number of M-ticket activations (tickets purchased by phone) has increased.

“There’s an effect,” he said. “We’re seeing positive revenue growth that isn’t being fueled by price increases because we’ve seen no fare increase. We can’t say for sure how much is attributable to this initiative, but we think it’s certainly helping.”

Ridership on the commuter rail is hard to measure because passenger counts are left to conductors who often have other duties to perform. Keolis officials said two entire trains are equipped with automated passenger counters and another 30 coaches will be outfitted soon, bringing the total to nearly 50.

Brian Lang, a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, asked why the counters are not being installed on every coach. Grabauskas said the counters cost $25,000 per coach and outfitting the entire commuter rail system would cost about $12 million. He said the counters would be a worthwhile investment, not just because of the data they would provide but because they could also be used to provide other services, including pinpointing where empty seats are located and coaches where temperatures are too high or low.

Keolis is also just starting to roll out new devices allowing conductors to sell tickets on board to customers with credit or debit cards. Currently, customers boarding without a ticket can only pay with cash.

Scorey said Keolis is also preparing to launch a new marketing campaign and possibly lower fares in a couple weeks to lure more people to use commuter rail to come into Boston on weekends and to reverse-commute to jobs on weekdays. Trains generally run nearly empty during both periods. Scorey said the initial targets for the reverse-commute marketing effort will be the Worcester and Lowell lines.

Uber, Lyft big hit with paratransit riders

Uber and Lyft are very popular with the MBTA’s paratransit riders – maybe too popular.

The MBTA has been running a first-of-its-kind pilot with Uber and Lyft allowing the ride-hailing apps to offer service to paratransit riders at rates subsidized by the T. The goal was to see if paratransit riders would embrace Uber and Lyft and if the T could reduce its costs by substituting ride-hailing apps for the point-to-point service provided by its traditional vendors.

Ben Schutzman, director of innovation and the RIDE at the T, said the pilot has indicated that paratransit customers like the ride-hailing apps and the apps can save the T money. He said the average MBTA cost per paratransit trip with Uber and Lyft is $15.27, compared to $40 with the more traditional RIDE service.

But Schutzman said most of the savings were wiped out by increased usage of the service. In other words, paratransit customers are taking so many more rides on Uber and Lyft that any savings from using the ride-hailing apps is virtually eliminated.

According to figures presented to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, the ride-hailing apps were saving the T about $25,000 a month between October 2016 and September 2017. But the savings dropped to $2,800 a month when the T increased the subsidy offered to paratransit riders using Uber and Lyft and the total number of trips with the ride-hailing apps soared.

Schutzman said the T’s paratransit customers love Uber and Lyft. He said the two companies garnered a net promoter score (an indication of customer loyalty) of 85 from paratransit customers, which is higher than the scores Apple and Amazon earn from their customers.

Schutzman recommended continuing the pilot through the end of June and then deciding how to proceed. He said a long-range goal is to have a centralized dispatch center for paratransit service that could  take service calls and decide the most cost-effective way to get customers to their destinations. That effort has been hampered by the fact that the T’s current vendor didn’t work out and the agency is in the process of hiring a replacement.

Silver Line time savings

One of the big complaints about the Silver Line where it comes up from the underground tunnel at D Street in South Boston is the long wait to cross the street.

One TransitMatters advocate suggested last month that the wait times need to be reduced before more buses are added to the route. Barring any improvement on the wait times, the advocate said, the T should consider building a tunnel underneath D Street.

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.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, said on Monday that Silver Line buses typically wait several minutes at D Street for the light to change. He said the T, working with the city of Boston, has managed to cut about 60 seconds off that wait at various times during the day.

According to Gonneville’s presentation, the median wait time after the change runs from a low of 100 seconds  at the beginning and the end of the day and as high as 150 seconds between 4 and 6 p.m. The biggest time savings occurred between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.