Major changes coming to Commuter Rail schedules

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We recently learned of major schedule changes coming to the Commuter Rail, including service reductions on several lines leaving long gaps between trains. The new schedules, effective Dec 14, were designed without any public consultation. If you have feedback on the changes please contact the MBTA and your elected officials.

UPDATE: Schedule changes have been postponed, with new schedules to be planned for the spring. We'll be working with the MBTA and Keolis in this process.


Transit Matters believes a frequent, reliable and comprehensive regional rail network is an essential component of a transportation system that provides access and opportunity. The current Commuter Rail system falls far short, so we sent the following letter to the MBTA, MassDOT and others asking for the changes to be postponed until they begin a public process.


We are writing to express concerns about the recently announced schedule changes on several Commuter Rail lines set to take effect December 14. Many of the changes, including service reductions of up to 33 percent in some places, would be considered “major” changes requiring public involvement under the MBTA Service Delivery Policy, yet neither the advocacy community nor any riders were consulted.

We ask that the board postpone implementation of the new schedules until a public process can bring together the MBTA, transit advocates, riders and Keolis to identify alternative solutions. As with other services, we would be happy to work with you to make service more efficient and effective, if we are given the opportunity to be involved.

While schedule changes may seem minor in the context of frequent local bus service, the limited frequency of Commuter Rail service forces riders to become dependent (and arrange their work and lifestyles around) a specific departure time. Even a 20-minute adjustment can create an extreme hardship for riders with inflexible schedules and potentially add thousands more cars to our streets and highways. This is inconsistent with the MassDOT Mode Shift Goal and would begin a death spiral of declining ridership justifying service cuts which prompt a further ridership drop, until service no longer functions.

We are troubled by the narrow focus on rush hours only, with the implication that every transit rider either works 9-5 or can tailor their life to the Commuter Rail schedule. While the new operation plan increases the number of trains arriving or departing during the “peak of the peak” periods (about 7-9am and 4-6pm), it reduces the number of trains at other times and creates gaps of up to two hours in the “shoulder” periods just before and after the rush hours, limited or preventing people from doing such basic daily activities are dropping children at school or meeting a friend after work.

Impacts of schedule changes on the greater network of connecting RTA and MBTA bus services, private shuttles, and institutional/shift times also do not appear to have been considered. Many transit and shuttle operators are unable to changes their own schedules on such short notice.

Short trips are heavily impacted by these schedule changes. While faster service from outlying communities is a good goal, reducing service to inner communities such as Waltham, Lynn and Chelsea creates severe hardships and forces many more people onto already overcrowded bus routes such as the 70, 111 and 450. Rather than focusing solely on longer, more expensive service, we should embrace opportunities to add short trips to attract people currently using overcrowded bus routes (due to limited CR frequency and higher fares), potentially saving money now spent on those bus routes and improving their reliability.

We believe the Commuter Rail has tremendous potential to grow and modernize to serve the surging demand from current and potential transit users, which would trigger a significant increase in ridership, including from those who would not use buses. Evening and weekend ridership is limited largely because the service is infrequent and does not run early or late enough. Many of us routinely find that we cannot access opportunities around the region because service is so infrequent (and the service span too short) and often uncoordinated with any other mode, including local RTA bus service.

Unfortunately the midday, evening and weekend service remains infrequent, starts too late and ends too early, despite what has been described as a comprehensive overhaul. As with the peak shoulder periods, the gaps between trains are too long, and even our own members report missing educational and social opportunities due to the train schedule not running close enough to their activities (especially in poor weather). The end result of this is people choose to drive instead, adding thousands of additional cars to our streets and highways each day, degrading safety and quality of life for everyone.

In summary, in order to make the Commuter Rail a viable option for regional transportation and shift people from cars to transit, we must operate hourly service at all times. More frequent service provides relative freedom of mobility and offers a real alternative to traffic congestion. This is why fleet expansion, the North South Rail Link and the purchase of more efficient trains (diesel multiple units and/or electrification) are essential to our region’s health. We are open to exploring more cost effective ways to do this, such as purchasing more efficient equipment, running coach buses instead of trains at certain times. Improvements to the user experience are critical, including fare policy changes, high-level platforms, use of the full train, clear boarding procedures and accessible trains/stations, but the most important priority for the Commuter Rail is frequency.

We recognize Commuter Rail is expensive to operate and funding is scarce, but like late night service, our commuter rail network is an example of service that is important to many people who seldom or never use it, representing a comprehensive network of mobility options. Off-peak commuter rail (and suburban express bus) ridership is highly variable and includes many people who use it infrequently yet rely on having transit available at all times, so they are not left stranded if their plans change (or have to buy and a car and create more traffic). Thus simple measures of ridership and cost on specific trips do not accurately represent their impact. Commuter rail is a service that we have chosen to provide as a matter of policy, because it supports our regional transportation and equity goals.

Again, we ask you to delay the planned schedule changes, except for the minor increases planned for the Fitchburg Line. Additionally, we request to meet with the MBTA and Keolis and form a collaborative relationship so that together we can identify solutions to operational challenges while improving service for everyone.

Thank you for your time and support of effective public transportation. We look forward to hearing from you to setup a meeting.