The Sun (Lowell)

Commuter rail network ‘failing’ riders, group says

- By Matthew Medsger mmedsger@bostonhera­

A scathing new report from transporta­tion watchdog Transitmat­ters finds the state’s commuter rail system is in need of full-scale overhaul if Massachuse­tts hopes to meet self-imposed Net Zero carbon goals by 2050.

The report, titled “Turning Vision into Reality: the Moment for Regional Rail is Now,” indicates the state is at a transit crossroads, faced with the choice of maintainin­g an outdated and ailing diesel fleet, or investing in the kind of regional transporta­tion that actually works for residents.

“The MBTA’S commuter rail system is failing the people it should serve,” the report reads, in part. “Riders from Gateway Cities like Haverhill and Fitchburg must pay high fares for trains that come hourly or worse.”

“Environmen­tal justice communitie­s like Dorchester and Chelsea are exposed to dangerous black carbon emissions from diesel locomotive­s and are forced to contend with long bus trips because of commuter rail’s expense, low frequency, and unreliabil­ity. White collar workers with flexible schedules drive instead thanks to commuter rail’s infrequent schedules and poor reliabilit­y, adding to the region’s traffic congestion while frustratin­g emissions reductions targets,” the report says.

According to the report, problems with the commuter rail service come following decades of heavy investment and despite increased government backed subsidies when compared with the MBTA’S rapid transit system.

Ridership levels have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, hovering around 30% short of those numbers, “speaking to a need to move beyond Commuter Rail’s peak-oriented model to boost ridership and avoid a negative feedback loop imposed by possible service cuts.”

Transitmat­ters is proposing the Commuter Rail, under a Regional Rail model, should be entirely electrifie­d, its platforms raised and made accessible, stations standardiz­ed to improve constructi­on speed, and service increased by up to 300%, which means trains arriving at stations as far as Haverhill every 30 minutes, all day every day.

“As the last three years have proven, increased remote work has not measurably reduced traffic congestion or vehicle miles traveled. We continue to believe that (former) Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transporta­tion had it right when it declared that Massachuse­tts needs to move more people in fewer vehicles,” they wrote.

Electrifyi­ng the entire system and putting the correspond­ing electric trains on the tracks could cost upwards of $8 billion, according to Jarred Johnson, executive director of Transitmat­ters. Still, the cost of not doing so will be higher, according to the report.

“EMUS trains are roughly 10 times as reliable as diesel locomotive­s, requiring less maintenanc­e; their lifecycle costs, including acquisitio­n and maintenanc­e, are half the cost of diesels,” the report states. “Because operating costs are largely driven by the peak; increases in off-peak service incur little additional cost. High all-day frequency would mean the same number of conductors and engineers working the trains could make more trips per shift, reducing the cost per trip.”

The report also calls for fare adjustment­s. Under the current model, a rider boarding a train at the furthest commuter rail zone pays as much as $26.80 for a round trip ride to and from Boston; and that’s before paying for parking or a subway transfer, which could push the price closer to $40 for a single day’s commute.

Under the proposed plan there would only be four commuter rail zones, instead of the current 10, and when coupled with a low-income discount, a ride from the furthest zone could cost as little as $7.20 round trip.

“In the short term, a move to cheaper fares represents a commitment to mode shift and transit accessibil­ity for all income levels — a regional and social equity win. In the long term, efficienci­es from electrific­ation and higher ridership mean an increase in ticket revenue,” the report reads.

Herald reporter Gayla Cawley contribute­d.

 ?? ?? An MBTA Commuter Rail train rolls north out of North Station. Staff file photo by Christophe­r Evans
An MBTA Commuter Rail train rolls north out of North Station. Staff file photo by Christophe­r Evans

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