commuter rail

Media Statement - Regional Rail Report

Today, transit advocacy group TransitMatters released its report calling for modernization of the MBTA Commuter Rail network and an updated business model as part of a larger reimagining of the service. ‘Massachusetts should commit to transitioning from its current Commuter Rail system to a Regional Rail system that offers frequent all day intercity rail service provided by clean electric-powered locomotives’, according to the report.

At a Beacon Hill press conference, TransitMatters President and co-founder Marc Ebuña said, “Our current Commuter Rail system is a vestige of mid-20th Century thinking, based on an antiquated assumption about the kind of mobility choices people expect to have. Many people today do not have 9 to 5 jobs; they require more flexibility from their transit system. Regional Rail offers that flexibility.”

The Regional Rail system recommended by TransitMatters is described in the report as “a reliable and more cost-effective intercity rail system based on a 21st century business model...operating more like a subway service with level platforms and frequent service all day.”  TransitMatters identified five critical components to the Regional Rail business plan: (1) systemwide electrification, (2) high platforms allowing faster and accessible boarding, (3) strategic infrastructure investments to maximize speed and reliability, (4) frequent all-day service – every half hour in the suburbs, every fifteen minutes in denser urban neighborhoods, and (5) fare rationalization, including free transfers between regional trains, subways and buses.

Board member Jarred Johnson explained that the recommendations for a new approach to providing intercity rail service “responds to the way people live today. We are doing our economy and our residents a disservice by continuing to operate and plan for an outdated Commuter Rail system. Our Regional Rail plan takes lessons learned from proven best practices across the US and globally, and offers a highly cost-effective approach to transitioning to a new system.”

According to the group, Regional Rail can begin with affordable pilots projects on the Providence Line — the Commuter Rail’s only electrified line — and the Fairmount Line. The group’s plan proposes cost-effective pilots for these lines as a way to prove the efficacy of the approach and to provide better service and social and environmental justice to Fairmount Line riders and corridor residents.

TransitMatters Board member Tim Lawrence observed that the report responds to the legitimate concern of the MBTA’s FMCB, that the current Commuter Rail system, carries too few riders at too high a cost. “We agree with that assessment,” said Lawrence. “Our plan for Regional Rail addresses this head on — by offering not just a vision, but a new business model. It’s that business model that will be a game changer, moving us away from the unacceptable status quo, and making our intercity rail system operate in a cost-effective, rider-responsive manner.”

The Regional Rail report can be downloaded from regionalrail.net.

Podcast 28 - Commuter Rail Modernization & why the North South Rail Link matters

We're joined in studio by Brad Bellows in this conversation to talk about the state of Commuter Rail and what the North South Rail Link can do for our region. Brad is an architect, board member of the Association for Public Transportation, and a member of the North South Rail Link Working Group which is leading a renewed push to see the connector finally built. 

This episode was recorded on April 19. [Our apologies for the long break, we've been busy advocating for better transit. More shows are in the pipeline. If you're interested in helping with podcast editing and blog posting, please email feedback@transitmatters.info.]

TransitMatters advocates for fast, frequent, reliable and effective public transportation in and around Boston. As part of our vision to repair, upgrade and expand the MBTA transit network, we aim to elevate the conversation around transit issues by offering new perspectives, uniting transit advocates and promoting a level of critical analysis normally absent from other media.

Like what you hear? Share it around, tell your friends and colleagues, and subscribe to the blog and podcast (on iTunes) to be notified of new posts and episodes. Support our work by becoming a member, making a donation or signing up to volunteer because we can't do this alone. Let us know what you think: connect with TransitMatters on Facebook or Twitter. Follow Jeremy Mendelson @Critical Transit, Josh Fairchild @hatchback31, Jarred Johnson @jarjoh, Marc Ebuña @DigitalSciGuy, or email us here.

The Case Against MBTA Fare Increases -- And How to Move Forward

The MBTA fare increase proposals (presentation, summary) are unnecessary and not even helpful in closing the budget gap. We summarized all the feedback we've received and proposed alternatives to increase ridership and revenue and reduce operating costs.

THE FACTS ON FARES & SERVICE

  1. MBTA fares have more than doubled since 2000, far outpacing inflation and exceeding even the increase in housing prices. Meanwhile the state gas tax has increased only 3 cents and no longer supports the cost of road maintenance, but MBTA riders are being asked to pay their own way.

  2. Commuter Rail fares and parking fees are some of the highest in the nation despite very infrequent service. Record rents and declining wages are forcing large numbers of people out of the city, to places where Commuter Rail is the only transit but is unaffordable. Low ridership has been cited as a motivation for further service cuts, yet when a day trip costs $84 for a family of four, the Commuter Rail is not living up to its potential as an effective regional transportation network.

  3. Ridership is up over 20 percent on all major lines as the city’s population has increased 10 percent in ten years. Trains and buses are slower, more crowded and less reliable than ever. All major rail and bus lines operate over capacity every day and the system does not effectively serve many trips. Failing to increase service by 20 percent is essentially a service reduction. Riders cannot be expected to pay even more without major upgrades such as increased capacity, faster service and new lines — give us a system worth paying for.

  4. Higher fares turn T riders into car drivers and make traffic congestion even worse, unless accompanied by major service improvements or a gas tax increase to make drivingless appealing. With gas prices approaching 11-year lows, commuters see transit fares rising and service quality declining and make the obvious choice. Rather than continue the death spiral of service cuts (yes, eliminating late night service = service cuts) and fare increases until transit is no longer effective and streets are completely gridlocked, now is the time to reverse course and invest heavily in public transportation, including maintaining or lowering fares.

  5. No major investments have been made to the system’s core since the 1980s and we are now paying the price as the MBTA slowly falls apart. The MBTA has made significant progress on reforms but the promised revenue in “reform before revenue” remains elusive. No efficiencies will ever fill the $7 Billion budget gap -- and that's just to reliably run what we have now, without desperately needed upgrades. If we don’t start investing now, the system will only get worse, and it will only cost more when we eventually have no choice. Riders are not responsible for chronic underinvestment and cannot be asked to shoulder the burden of ever increasing debt service payments.

  6. Soaring housing costs and declining wages are forcing many people to move to places with poor transit access. We have repeatedly cut service and raised fares on these "low ridership" services, while ignoring others with great potential.

  7. Governor Baker said there should be no new taxes or fees — apparently not including T riders. The agency’s 4% cost growth is in line with the Governor’s call for a 5% increase in state spending elsewhere. So why is the MBTA Control Board subjecting T riders to a higher standard?

  8. Good transit provides many benefits to all of society — even those who never use it. Public transportation supports dense, vibrant communities where everyone has access to basic needs and the freedom to move around the region. Last winter showed us just how important the MBTA is to the entire state’s economy: without the T, all of our favorite stores, restaurants, institutions and entertainment venues would be unable to attract sufficient customers and employees. Imagine a transit system with the resources to run excellent service every day and make people actually want to use it.

  9. Traffic congestion on our streets and highways is worse than ever because of our failure to upgrade and expand the transit network. Boston EMS ambulance response times have increased 16 percent since 2009, the Boston Fire Department takes one minute longer to respond to calls, and buses spend much of their trip stuck in traffic. Only by expanding transit so it is useful for more people will we create space for essential services and emergency vehicles. Fare increases only put more cars on the road.

  10. Over 100 years after the first subway construction in Boston, the region’s poorest, most underrepresented neighborhoods still lack rapid transit access. Communities such as Chelsea, Roxbury and Mattapan have the longest trip times (often slower than walking) and least reliable bus service. These riders are also most heavily impacted by rising fares, often cutting back on groceries or skipping social events due to the cost of transportation. Special attention should be focused on bringing fast, frequent and more affordable transit to our most vulnerable riders.

  11. Riders are doing their part to support vibrant communities, reduce traffic and address climate change. We should reward - not punish - those who use the MBTA by maintaining or lowering fares across the system and investing in faster and more effective service. Our transit network is a valuable public service, not a profitable business, and it's time we started treating it like one.

 

ALTERNATIVES

Many simple changes could improve the user experience and help alleviate capacity constraints until service can be expanded. The T should experiment with several options in an effort to upgrade service and reallocate inefficiently used resources, and as alternatives to (or mitigation for) a fare increase. In other words, what improvements are we getting for the higher fees?

  1. Instead of a single transfer, allow unlimited transfers within 2 hours on bus, subway and Commuter Rail, to permit trips through downtown and between non-downtown points. Currently it is impossible to go from Roxbury to Chelsea, Everett to Brighton Center, or Roslindale to Brookline (just a few examples) without two fares or a very long trip with a transfer downtown. Removing the barrier would allow riders to make more efficient trips and access more jobs while increasing ridership (and revenue) and reducing congestion in the downtown transfer stations. An unlimited transfer — think of it as a 2-hour unlimited pass — is in effect on transit systems across the country such as Portland, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

  2. Implement all-door boarding on buses and trolleys. Pass users could board at any door and special fare inspectors would conduct occasional inspections, issuing a fine to riders who haven’t paid. Up to 30 percent of Green Line and bus travel time is spent sitting at stops while riders line up in the cold waiting to tap their card. Keeping buses and trolleys moving means faster service, more frequent service, more evenly spaced trains/buses, reduced fare evasion and lower operating costs. All-door boarding is now standard practice on nearly all North American light rail lines and San Francisco has expanded it to all buses.

  3. Reduce Commuter Rail fares on off-peak and weekend trains. As record numbers of urban dwellers leave the region’s core to escape soaring rents, the Commuter Rail has the potential to dramatically improve their quality of life. Yet commuter Rail fares are too expensive, even off-peak trains operate with hundreds of empty seats that could offer a fast new service to riders of all income levels. Thousands of riders endure long trips on crowded buses or limit their economic and social opportunities because of transportation costs. Many more drive choose driving over the high train fare, adding thousands more cars to our streets every day.

    • Extend Zone 1A (subway fare) to include all stations within 12 miles of downtown Boston, roughly the distance to Braintree, Waltham or Lynn, or anywhere within Route 128. It is expensive to provide very frequent service on slow, crowded buses to places like Hyde Park, Roslindale, Waltham and Lynn while train cars run empty.

    • Heavily discount Commuter Rail fares during off-peak periods and on weekends. Chicago and Philadelphia have seen large ridership increases with their $8 unlimited weekend (Chicago) and $12 unlimited (Philadelphia) off-peak passes.

    • Integrate fares between subway, bus and Commuter Rail so that riders can pay with a CharlieCard. Issue transfers valid between the Commuter Rail and a subway or bus line. Add a credit card payment option.

  4. Coordinate bus connections at terminals, stations and transfer locations. Improve scheduling of connecting services and hold buses and trains for close connections during times of less frequent service.

  5. Upgrade bus stops, stations and terminals to improve service quality and comfort, allow more efficient bus and passenger circulation and increase ridership at very low cost.

  6. Implement transit priority measures on city streets for faster, more reliable and less costly bus and trolley service. Faster service and increased on-time performance were among the top requests from participants in the GoBoston 2030 transportation planning process. Many simple signal modifications and street design changes would help meet these goals.

  7. If fares do increase, offer free and discounted passes for low-income riders through social service programs such as SNAP, WIC and MassHealth. Expand student pass programs through cities and university groups. However, the availability of low-income discounts must not serve as a justification for fare increases.

WHAT CAN I DO?

Speak up at a public meeting, submit comments and contact your representatives. Your city and state elected officials need to hear from you; remind them that the MBTA benefits everyone in the state and we must make up for our past mistakes. Otherwise the death spiral of high fares and poor service will continue -- more breakdown, delays and late trains/buses -- until our once-proud transit network falls apart for good.

Podcast 23 - Alon Levy, Pedestrian Observations

We sat down with urban transit student and author of the popular Pedestrian Observations blog, Alon Levy, well known among advocates for his knowledge of best (and worst) practices in urban planning and transportation.

In a time of short-sighted cost-cutting and privatization efforts, it is refreshing to hear smart and effective ways to use our existing transportation assets. We spend some time debunking the myth that new technology like the Hyperloop or personal rapid transit will solve our problems. Instead, we know how to address our challenges using existing technology, for example, modernizing commuter rail, increasing core system capacity and upgrading the network to serve modern travel needs. Using electronics before concrete. And of course, we cover the MBTA's Control Board and the ongoing mess, including privatization, late night service, the Green Line Extension, North South Rail Link, and try to learn why construction costs so much.

And much more.

The Transit Matters Podcast is your source for transportation news, analysis, interviews with transit advocates and more. By offering new perspectives, uniting transit advocates and promoting a level of critical analysis normally absent from other media, we can achieve a useful and effective transportation network because Transit Matters.

Like what you hear? Share it around, tell your friends and colleagues, and subscribe to the blog and podcast (on iTunes) to be notified of new posts and episodes. Support our work by becoming a member, making a donation or signing up to volunteer because we can't do this alone. Let us know what you think by connect with TransitMatters on Facebook or Twitter. Follow Jeremy Mendelson @Critical Transit, Josh Fairchild @hatchback31, Jarred Johnson at @jarjoh, Marc Ebuña at @DigitalSciGuy, and or email us here.

Podcast 22 - MBTA Raising Fares Again, Overtime Lies, Challenges and Opportunities

The MBTA fare increase proposals (presentation, summary) are unnecessary and not even helpful in closing the budget gap. This is the latest example to the way the Fiscal & Management Control Board is using misleading statistics to support an ideological agenda that has never worked. What happened to being visionary and taking a fresh look?

Short of major investment -- which is needed more than ever -- many simple changes could improve the user experience and help alleviate capacity constraints. For example:

  1. The transfer policy could allow unlimited use within 2 hours (instead of the current one-transfer limit) to offer new options for shorter trips, increase ridership, reduce congestion downtown and save money.
  2. All-door boarding on buses and trolleys means faster trips, more frequent service, lower fare evasion and operating cost savings.
  3. Expanding Zone 1A on Commuter Rail to all Boston stations as well as Waltham and Lynn would offer fast service for thousands of low-income riders while reducing operating costs.
  4. Many low-cost changes such as upgrading bus stops, stations and terminals would improve service quality and increase ridership.

UPDATE: See our Fares & Service fact sheet (the longer version is here).

All this and more in this week's show, recorded in the WMBR studio at MIT in Cambridge. Marc offers some insights from this year's TransportationCamp DC on how regional governance could address some of our management challenges, and former T General Manager Beverly Scott was there. We hear a little bit from the growing transit advocacy network, as organizations like TransitMatters start to pop up in cities across the country.

The Transit Matters Podcast is your source for transportation news, analysis, interviews with transit advocates and more. By offering new perspectives, uniting transit advocates and promoting a level of critical analysis normally absent from other media, we can achieve a useful and effective transportation network because Transit Matters.

Like what you hear? Share it around, tell your friends and colleagues, and subscribe to the blog and podcast (on iTunes) to be notified of new posts and episodes. Support our work by becoming a member, making a donation or signing up to volunteer because we can't do this alone. Let us know what you think by connect with TransitMatters on Facebook or Twitter. Follow Jeremy Mendelson @Critical Transit, Josh Fairchild @hatchback31, Jarred Johnson at @jarjoh, Marc Ebuña at @DigitalSciGuy, and or email us here.

Podcast 20 - Advocacy Updates: Fares, Late Night Service, Commuter Rail, GLX and Service Planning to make the MBTA network more effective

Podcast 20 - Advocacy Updates: Fares, Late Night Service, Commuter Rail, GLX and Service Planning to make the MBTA network more effective

This show is focused on MBTA advocacy, with the full crew sharing our thoughts on some of the things in the media lately, and which we've been working on.

Fares increases are proposed again despite the absence of a vision for upgrading and growing our network. It's hard to ask people for more money without real improvements. Some say we should give discounts to low-income riders and raise fares for everyone else. We explore why a two-tier transit system is a terrible idea that will lead to a death spiral and actually impact the poorest riders most. Also, if a transit fare is not a tax, is it a fee?

The MBTA board (FMCB) has proposed eliminating up to 28 bus routes, largely without any analysis of what these routes do or how they operate.  A better approach is to figure out why some routes are expensive and/or attract low ridership, such as poor service quality (on-time performance, frequency, connections) and many seem to be designed to fail. The existing late night service is one example, but rather than get rid of it, service should be vastly improved and expanded to full overnight service (don't forget the early morning needs!). Commuter rail come up too.

We talk about the importance of good service planning, the different levels of planning, and how we can not only make small routine changes but also design a better network. Aside from service cuts, no routes have changed since 2008 and a comprehensive review has never been done, even though travel patterns have changed a lot since the 1964 creation of MBTA. Most routes do not meet basic service standards like crowding and on-time performance. How can we plan for upgrades?

The Green Line Extension is way over budget and horribly mismanaged, largely due to schedule pressures, not enough MBTA staff to oversee this massive project (due to austerity) and as a result contractors scamming the T. Are we learning the lessons as the FMCB looks to cut the budget even more? We explain the importance of carrying out the GLX plan which was approved through an extensive public process, and how proposed project reductions would actually cause us to spend more in operating costs to run the line.

Major changes coming to Commuter Rail schedules

Major changes coming to Commuter Rail schedules

Image via Flickr

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.

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. ...