MBCR

When Does "Operational Efficiency" Mean a Better MBTA?

When Does "Operational Efficiency" Mean a Better MBTA?

Recently, a certain lobbying group has been arguing that the MBTA shouldn't be judged by how many people use it to get around, but rather by how many dollars it costs to run a vehicle for an hour or a mile. This cost per mile argument follows on the heels of their recently debunked assertion the that T is overfunded as compared to other transit agencies when looking at cost per trip. Those cost per trip comparisons didn't really make sensebecause they tried to compare the T to transit systems which provide vastly different services, which require different levels of investment to serve different populations (i.e., some agencies run only local bus or rail service, while the T does all of those, plus regional commuter rail, express buses, ferries, etc.).

So let’s address the cost per mile metric...

MBTA Releases Commuter Rail Realtime Data to Developers

Realtime data or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bus and How You Might Also Love the Commuter Rail

The MBTA released realtime bus tracking data for all bus routes at the end of last summer and they haven’t looked back. Realtime tracking of buses has taken most of the worry out of riding the bus; even if it does have its glitches, it’s reliable enough to make riding more accessible for a whole swath of people who had previously been averse to riding buses, including this blogger.

Yesterday, the MBTA opened even more data up to the development community with realtime tracking data for commuter rail. Josh Robin, Director of Special Projects and Innovation at the T, led the announcement, impressing upon developers the fact that the feed is still in beta since there are still gaps in the data. In order to improve the consistency of the data, various backend technologies and practises still need to be improved at the MBCR, the MBTA's contractor for commuter rail services.

Unlike buses and subway service where the greatest factor affecting customer perceptions is frequency, commuter rail is judged on its timeliness based on the published schedule. The feed will deliver not only the timeliness of a train, but also whether or not the train has stopped and it is unknown when the train will start again, as in instances where a train has broken down or there is any other blockage on the line.

The feed takes advantage of data that has already been available to the agency for internal management, as with the previous releases of realtime data for buses and subways. What's new is the formatting of that data into something that can easily be used by developers to make the numerous user-friendly apps that have been published to date.

Developers should be including the new data into their apps soon, making commuter rail just a bit more accessible and taking the guessing out of riders' commutes.

On track for progress

GM Rich Davey stopped by on his way out to thank the developers and answer any questions the crowd had. He reinforced the fact that releasing this data and enabling third parties to develop applications to make it useable for riders is part of his goal to find cost-effective ways of improving the accessibility of transit and the rider experience.

While I laud the MBTA for improving information delivery with a cost-effective solution (they have won numerous open data awards for their work), it only enables riders who own smartphones and is dependent on cellular network access. SMS bus tracking is available through NextBus, but no such service is available to riders for the Blue, Red, and Orange Lines and the recently added commuter rail. Further, cell service isn't available at every underground station (though that's slowly changing).

Ultimately, the MBTA needs to better format information on the many LED signs that are all over the system, including the commuter rail. At the moment, riders without smartphones or with no cell service only know when a train is near the moment an announcement is made - there is no persistent, in-station information about the next train, let alone the one following behind it.

I've spoken with the GM about this and he knows it needs to be done. Part of the problem is cost of labour  to retool the system and the cost of hardware to upgrade some LED signs that don't have the resolution necessary to display some of this information. Meanwhile, the MTA in New York City is well on its way to have LED countdown clocks installed at every station, a system that was ultimately developed in-house at lower cost after many years of delays and budget overruns with outside contractors.

While countdown clocks won't solve the many infrastructure-related delays that happen each day, both here in Boston and in New York, it arms riders with the information they need to make split-second decisions about their commute if they can take alternate routes. This damage control approach to customer service is pretty much the only option to improve perceived quality of transit so long as transit agencies aren't given the money to bring their systems up to a state of good repair (the GM himself passingly lamented the fact that there simply isn't money to get new Red Line cars - because of a $2 billion shortfall in federal, state, and local funding, the current capital investment programme[PDF] for the next 5 years only includes $200 million for engineering and design of new Red and Orange Line cars, not purchase).

GM Davey - Executive Transit Rider

When I asked GM Davey what his favourite app was (in front of a room of app developers), he noted that he regularly used a web site, partly because he had to switch back to his Blackberry from his Android since it was having issues syncing with the MBTA's email services. He also noted that he had recently used the site on a trip via the 39 to dinner at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, for which he gave rave reviews. With that, I'm curious if there would be public interest in a (bi-)weekly blurb from the GM in the Metro about his experiences on the T.

Raising Safety, Efficiency, and Platforms

High level platforms on the US' top 3 commuter railroads enable them to safely carry volumes of passengers every day. With this winter's delays on the commuter rail, it's clear that legislators and MBTA and MBCR administrators need to push harder for better infrastructure and the funds with which to furnish it. But let's take a look at an issue that comes up every once in a while. Despite the MBCR's best efforts at preventing boarding and alighting accidents, through policy or physically securing doors, these accidents happen. In the winter, steps that accumulate ice from billowing snow kicked up as the train moves along can be a liability for passenger accidents and hampers boarding and alighting efforts, even increasing boarding times as people take their time to prevent slips and falls.

I'm down on Long Island for a few days and I'm quickly remembering what fast, frequent, and convenient commuter rail service is like. I can take a train from Penn Station to my parents' stop out in Wantagh, over 50km or about the distance from Boston South Station to Worcester, and reliably be there in 1 hour. Trains on my branch run every 30 minutes to every hour, depending on time of day. This is not only because the electric M-7s the LIRR runs have better acceleration rates than diesel trains, but also because of how passengers can get on and off of the train.

When visiting most any other commuter railroad in first world countries or even our neighbouring commuter railroads to the south, the contrast is very clear. Passengers board and exit at any door along the length of the train from automated doorways that sense obstructions and prevent the train from moving if any of them are open. This is how heavy rail transit, like the Red, Orange, or Blue lines, operate (except when rollingstock on rapid transit is also so old that door sensors don't sense when people or objects are caught).

The top two commuter railroads, Metro North and Long Island Railroads, only have high-level platforms like those pictured above. On the MBTA network, very few stations have full high-level platforms and many have portions that exist only to make the stations ADA-compliant, the construction of which has been furnished by MBTA a multi-year, $1+ billion ADA compliance project.

Even if the Legislature and federal grants furnished the money required for the MBTA to raise its platforms, newer passenger cars (rollingstock) would still need to be purchased in order to fully seize the benefits of high-level boarding. The current and on-order bi-level cars have the latent ability to coordinate closing and opening of doors along the length of the train. Almost none of the older single level cars have this ability; conductors would need to go to every door to open and close them, otherwise lock doors in place to prevent the train from moving with open doors.

Newer commuter rail trains also benefit from the flexibility of having doors not located at end vestibules in order to allow passengers to board and alight more quickly since doors are more evenly spaced along the length of the train. New Jersey Transit's bi-level cars have 'quarter-point' doors, which sit over the trucks (the sets of wheels on a train), in addition to the conventional vestibular doors with 'trap doors' that permit low-level boarding. This isn't the most optimal door configuration, even for bi-level cars, but permits greater flexibility for passengers who are boarding or alighting at high-level platforms.

Aside from platform improvements, a capital expense that would likely cost tens of millions to billions to complete, depending on engineering practices and station geometries, there are several changes inside trains that can happen, namely electronic fare payment. The CharlieCard is now three years late in arriving on commuter rail and I quite frequently still see tweets of people thanking the MBTA for not coming to collect their fare on the train.

If you look at the conductor in the lede photo, you'll notice a small grey device on her belt - all Metro North conductors are equipped with one. This is a portable electronic ticketing machine and allows her to process credit and debit cards so passengers can pay for their fare without juggling cash. It is likely these machines can be upgraded to validate fare with RFID cards or future NFC technologies that the MTA is currently exploring with the MBTA and other regional transit operators. With deals and decisions to be made in the coming years, it's likely the MBTA and others are cooling their heels and waiting for a standard to come in before purchasing soon-to-be-outdated portable fare collection equipment. Long Island Railroad was promised these handy devices in about the same time as the MBTA Commuter Rail, but LIRR conductors still don't have them.

When all is said and done, both raising platforms, reconfiguring stations, and procuring portable fare collection devices will cost money, admittedly money no one seems to have, most especially the MBTA. Though, let's remember that these are expenses that fall under the capital budget, which is almost exclusively furnished by MassDOT, state grants, and federal grants from USDOT funding programs and other agencies. Much of these capital expenses can also be covered by investments from the private sector in the form of associated transit improvements to improve the appeal of or as part of transit-oriented developments around commuter rail stations.

These improvements need to happen in order to improve safety and running times of commuter rail trains, which already suffer from conditions not seen anywhere else in the burgeoning metropolitan regions of the Northeast Megaregion.

Note: MBTA Commuter Rail trains do have to make one accommodation that LIRR, Metro North, and most NJ Transit trains don't - MBTA shares many of its tracks with long, slow-moving CSX trains that are also important to Boston's economy. It will take a much greater amount of infrastructure investment to solve that problem, but that isn't to say DMU or EMU operation of MBTA Commuter Rail trains wouldn't improve service.

The Apparent Illogic in Reduced Train Service

Updated: Yesterday, the Boston Globe published an article on changes to the commuter rail schedule the MBCR plans to enact during the next snowstorm. A volley of angry tweets followed the article yesterday, subtly noting the apparent illogic of reducing train service to improve train service.

We all know by now that much of the MBTA's and MBCR's is well beyond their rated life cycle and many have missed the mid-life overhaul that would've kept them running more reliably up to the day of their replacement. (Of course the reasons for this are largely ignored and squarely placed on the MBTA for its inability to budget for capital expenses but that's for another post.) With that, many troublesome pieces of equipment are nonetheless scrambled into service in order to have the necessary capacity to move the many thousands of commuters who flood platforms every rush hour.

The problem is that much of this equipment isn't worth running for the number of delays (and angry commuters) they produce. From an operations perspective, the most logical move would be to remove those trains from service to properly repair them and prevent them from delaying other trains or stopping service entirely. This reduces the number of trains that run, increases the headway between trains, and makes trains more crowded (which produces its own delays), but if the remaining trains that run are more reliable, the occurrence of equipment-related delays goes down and everyone gets to where they need to go with fewer frustrations. Additionally, by increasing headways and reducing the number of trains running, riders along the line are more insulated from momentary delays. This, of course, only makes it harder to get passengers moving again when there are delays not related to equipment failure, like medical emergencies or police action. The ultimate solution is replacement of failing trains and repair of various track and wayside components. All of that should start coming in with MBTA's 2012-2016 Capital Investment Plan [PDF]; the depth and breadth of the CIP and whether or not it is fully funded are entirely different matters.

The Globe article itself is scant on the details of how the MBCR will 'devote more staff time and financial resources to maintaining coaches and locomotives' and how, if at all, it relates to this reduced inclement weather schedule. For improved fleet maintenance, reducing the number of trains at all times would make the most sense, but it's likely MBCR has extra stock that it can scramble into action in order to maintain cars like the control car on Ms. DelBono's cancelled 6:45 train. The new commuter cars set to start arriving in 2012 on north shore lines should provide the additional stock MBCR needs to have a buffer of working equipment while adding extra rush hour capacity.

National Context on Weather-Related Problems

One tweet yesterday from an incredulous Bostonian asked why any commuter in the Boston area would ever care about the performance of other railroads in regards to the presentation the MBCR delivered yesterday, as obtained by the Globe. The issues other railroads in the Northeast are experiencing provide a context for the issues that have plagued the Boston area commuter rail network, the very context many riders are lacking when they're standing at platforms waiting for their trains that makes them feel victimized by their transport operator.

This isn't to excuse the lack of communication by the MBCR with regard to its delays and cancelled trains, but instead to point out that even operators like the Long Island Railroad and MetroNorth Railroad with their modern equipment aren't immune to track conditions or don't also have to cut service due to aging equipment.

On the T with MBTA GM Rich Davey

I don't often travel on the T after 8 for various reasons, all unrelated to the number of notices I get via the T-Alerts emails about delays. Last Thursday evening it was an unavoidable affair, but it was certainly fruitful. MBTA General Manager Rich Davey, another person, and I were all heading home after the joint MBTA-MassDOT Developers event, Where's The Bus? 2.0 and we got stuck on a southbound Red Line train at Charles-MGH due to a broken down train at Park Street. Our idle chatting turned into an impromptu interview with the new GM nearly 11 weeks into his appointment.