Originally published for the Sun Chronicle on Feb. 14, 2016.
Equipped with a Patriots hat, some light reading and a yellow Au Bon Pain coffee cup for his daily 47-minute commute, Michael Morin said that although he was pretty satisfied with the MBTA’s Providence-Boston line commuter rail service, he wished there were a more reliable way to notify riders of the delays he can expect on a regular basis.
“Typically from South Station to Attleboro it’s very reliable, but usually on the way back, sometimes it’s as much as 20 minutes late,” said Morin, who lives in Cambridge with his fiance and works in Attleboro. “I’ll check the alerts and sometimes you’ll get nothing until you’re actually there, and sometimes there’s not even alerts when you’re waiting outside.”
But while Morin has accepted delays and wants a better way to monitor them, a representative from Keolis Commuter Services, which operates the rail service for the MBTA, said the commuter line is more concerned about finding ways to reduce delays themselves through better scheduling.
“Schedules for the MBTA commuter rail haven’t really been changed in 20-plus years,” spokesman Mac Daniel said. “You’ve got a system that doesn’t take into account new ridership and developments along particular rail lines. So that’s one of the main intentions of the proposed schedule changes – to create these efficiencies and improve on-time performance.”
Recent proposed schedule changes seek to enhance on-time performance rates by more evenly spacing the time between trains.
“What tends to happen on commuter rails is you’ll have a disabled train, and while that train may be repaired in 10 to 15 minutes, trains behind it or maybe even in front of it may be delayed as well because of residual delays,” Daniel said.
The solution, he said, is to space out the times between trains by proposing various schedule changes on all lines of the service.
“So if there is a problem that is causing delays, that delay would not impact as many trains as it would currently,” he said.
The MBTA is in the midst of public hearings to discuss schedule changes with residents along each line.
According to MBTA data, Morin is one of 19,634 riders who rely on the Providence line for transportation during weekday peak hours. The line, which serves Attleboro and Mansfield, has the highest ridership of all 14 lines and more than double the amount of commuters on nine of the other 13 lines.
Proposed changes to the Providence line include adding a number of express trains during morning and afternoon peak hours, which the MBTA says would decrease commuter time and reduce overcrowding.
Last year, faced with a record-breaking snowfall across Massachusetts, on-time performance rates along the Providence line fell below MBTA targets, which shoot for a 92 percent rate of all trains operating within five minutes of their scheduled departure and arrival times.
But even in the midst of this year’s milder winter, records show service along the Providence line still falls below that target, and in some cases is worse than last year’s numbers.
In December 2015, 80.86 percent of trains on the Providence line were on time, compared to 89.46 percent in December 2014. January improved with 87.6 percent of trains on time, over 85.26 percent last year.
Daniel said non-weather delays can result from many things, but a big factor for the Providence line is its shared infrastructure with Amtrak. Amtrak controls the maintenance of the rail in exchange for its shared use, so any issues with Amtrak maintenance produce residual effects on commuter rail performance.
Last April a major Amtrak control box was destroyed by lightning and “caused havoc” on the line because the MBTA relied on Amtrak to find a solution, which was initially slow to happen, Daniel said.
Joe Pesaturo, director of communications at the MBTA, said performance on the line will improve after Amtrak completes the multi-million dollar repairs on the control box next month.
But the headaches continue. Earlier this month, the Boston Globe also reported new locomotives put into use over the past year were suffering from defects and resulted in some delays in commuter rail performance. While the new locomotives are in use on the Providence line, train delays because of those issues were “minimal,” Daniel said.