Boston Globe, March 15, 2017
by Nicole Dungca, Globe Staff
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s new proposal to save money by eliminating commuter rail service on weekends would make it unique among the 10 busiest commuter rail systems in the country.
No other major commuter rail system shuts down service for the entire weekend, according to a review by the Globe. Eight of the major systems, including those in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and Philadelphia, offer rail service on Saturdays and Sundays, the Globe review found. The Utah Transit Authority, a far smaller system in the top 10, offers service on Saturday, but not on Sunday.
“I’ve never heard of that in a major American city,” Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for Transit Center, a New York-based foundation that studies and advocates for public transportation, said of the MBTA proposal. “The outcry would be hard to imagine if something like that was proposed here in suburban New York and New Jersey.”
On Monday, transit officials announced they could halt weekend commuter rail service for a year to save $10 million, drawing immediate protests. While trains run far less frequently on weekends, when ridership drops drastically, they are considered vital to workers who rely solely on public transportation, as well as other passengers eager to leave their car at home.
MBTA officials caution that no final decisions have been made. Nonetheless, Jim Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said he was shocked by the prospect of no weekend service.
“I think it’s shortsighted to be in the business of cutting public transportation services,” said Rooney, a former state transportation official who also helped run the MBTA. “There’s certainly a population of employees who use this service. And there are all kinds of people who come into Boston for weekend events.”
Eliminating weekend commuter rail service would undermine efforts to expand access to jobs and housing, he said.
“Sometimes public services are not about just the bottom line,” he said. “When I hear proposals like this, sometimes I think we’ve lost the true definition of public service.”
Transit officials, including the state’s transportation secretary and the MBTA’s acting general manager, said this week that the system must take a hard look at its operations, especially those that serve relatively few riders, to save money.
Officials had proposed shutting down certain lines on some weekends for mandatory rail safety improvements, but the idea discussed Monday goes much further.
Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said the idea “is not a formal proposal yet.” The MBTA has not provided a timetable for a final decision.
“Monday marked the beginning of a discussion about the [fiscal] 2018 budget, not the end of it,” he wrote in an e-mail. “A robust discussion is anticipated in the coming weeks, as MBTA leadership continues its work to operate the transit system in the most efficient manner possible and derive the greatest benefits from its limited resources.”
Currently, the MBTA and its commuter rail contractor, Keolis Commuter Services, run all lines on the weekend, except for the Needham line on Sundays.
Trains, however, run far less often, in some cases only every two to three hours.
The MBTA says it costs more than $30 per ride to subsidize weekend trips, compared to $5 on weekdays.
The MBTA has provided incomplete data on the number of weekend riders.
In a May 2016 report, Keolis estimated that 8,300 people rode into Boston on Saturdays, and about 4,500 on Sundays, based on passenger counts from North and South stations. The report did not include outbound trips.
In 2013, the commuter rail estimated that it provided about 25,700 trips — both inbound and outbound — on Saturdays and about 21,000 on Sundays, according to the MBTA.
On weekdays, the commuter rail averaged about 130,000 rides, according to 2013 statistics.
That dropoff in weekend ridership is sharper than other passenger railroads.
For example, New York’s Long Island Railroad, the nation’s busiest commuter railroad, recorded an average of about 109,000 Saturday trips in 2015, compared to about 275,000 on weekdays. On Sundays, average ridership was about 87,000.
Even several smaller commuter railroads run seven days a week service, though in some cases it is limited. The Southern California Regional Rail Authority, or Metrolink, runs throughout the weekend, although three of its seven lines don’t run.
The system’s ridership is less than 40 percent of the MBTA commuter rail’s, according to the latest numbers from the Federal Transit Administration.
The Utah Transit Authority, which provides just 4.6 million commuter rail rides a year, doesn’t provide Sunday service. Remi Barron, a spokesman at the agency, said that projected ridership would not justify the expense, and the days off give workers a chance to perform track maintenance.
The MBTA could follow a similar path and run only the most popular lines.
The Providence and Worcester lines see the most riders on both days, while the Fitchburg, Fairmount, Kingston, and Greenbush lines attract the fewest.
But some advocates are wary of eliminating weekend service based on ridership.
Rafael Mares, a vice president for the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, said that providing more regular trains could well boost demand. And canceling the least popular lines could strand those who need it the most.
“It’s dangerous to say we only want to fund the rides that are most used,” he said.
While some transit systems do not provide weekend commuter rail service, they tend to be much smaller.
The Virginia Railway Express, which runs from Northern Virginia to Washington D.C., doesn’t operate on weekends, but only provides one-eighth the number of yearly rides as the MBTA.
The VRE, the nation’s 11th-busiest commuter railroad, is owned by a government entity, but operated by a subsidiary of Keolis.
Joseph Swartz, chief of staff at VRE, said that railway hasn’t provided weekend service because it can’t — its tracks are owned by Norfolk Southern and CSX, and, under the current agreement, those freight companies have said the railway can only use the tracks on weekdays.
Swartz said they haven’t studied the issue because of the agreement, but he has heard calls for weekend service.
View the original article online at BostonGlobe.com.