The State of the T in Wellesley

MBTA officials held a public forum in Wellesley earlier this week to address current shortcomings with the public transportation system, and deliver pledges of better times ahead.

The officials, MBTA Chief Railroad Officer Ryan Coholan (cool title), and Anthony DeDominicis, senior director with the commuter rail program group, spoke plainly and in good detail about the T’s challenges and plans. They also acknowledged what regular and even occasional commuters know: the system is too crowded, not reliable enough, and has serious issues with fare collection and frequency. I know plenty of Wellesley-ites who suck it up and drive because of the T’s problems.

(I’ve been a regular weekday commuter rail user for the past 2 years, and spent about an hour on an immobile train the night after this meeting, grrrr… so I’ve lived these frustrations. In fact I was going to watch the Wellesley Public Media recording of this meeting during our super long delay, but no real WiFi on the train. Enough fussing: I’m going to stick to the meeting at hand in this post.)

The meeting got off to a not-surprising and awkward start when Coholan surveyed what appeared to be a sitting-room-only crowd of 25-30 people about how many ride the train on a fairly regular basis. Only a few raised their hands. Obviously, the bulk of regular local commuters like myself weren’t going to be around for a 3pm meeting on a Monday in Wellesley (I buzzed through the recording). The audience included many familiar faces, including a couple of Board of Selectmen members, other town movers and shakers, as well as a group of recent Wellesley High grads who I’ve spotted commuting to summer internships in recent years.

commuter rail train

Capacity problem

Coholan began his remarks with an update on what the T is doing to address capacity issues. He shared numbers and explained that new train coaches are hard to come by even as commuter rail ridership has soared 21% over the past 8 years in the face of worsening traffic in the greater Boston area. In fact, the T needs to get its equipment from outside the country, or refurbish “the worst of the worst” of its own mothballed cars, which it is also doing with 21 of them.

If I told you I had a pasture of cars ready to go I’d be lying to you,” Coholan said. “Every car we have access to is in service.”

The T has ordered 80 bi-level coaches, but we won’t see the first 16 of those until 2022, and they will need to be divvied up across lines, Coholan said One other challenge is that as soon as the increased capacity starts to address passenger load, more passengers will likely be attracted. (The T currently has 90 locomotives and 420 coaches.)

More cars is the quickest fix, but putting a third rail into action will be an important longer-term solution, the T officials said.  In the past, there have been 3 or 4 tracks, but they’ve come and gone based on demand. A comprehensive Rail Vision project will look at more innovative options, too, including more frequent trains once more equipment is available, and how to address concerns of those in nearer Boston ‘burbs like Wellesley vs. further-out communities such as Framingham and Worcester.

(As I’m catching a Wednesday night train, where I plan to write this part of this post, I am greeted with a DELAYED posting on the schedule board at South Station. Then, not kidding, they send us all onto the train on track 2, only to boot us a few minutes later onto a train on track 5. Can’t make this stuff up. OK, back to not fussing again…)

Accessibility, frequency and fares

Attendees raised questions touching on reliability, accessibility and frequency. On reliability, Coholan said mechanical reliability improved 19% last year, though he acknowledged that doesn’t do you any good if you’re on one of the broken down trains. Even adding 80 cars in the years ahead will only sustain the system, not really grow capacity as needed, he said.

Improving accessibility is a huge challenge at Wellesley’s train stations, and while the T has plans to make all Wellesley stations fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the timeline is blurry at best. Coholan said that because of federal rules, there are disincentives to making small quick changes (like say a mini-ramp to aid those in wheelchairs getting on and off of trains) because they can trigger requirements to make major station overhauls that would require a lot more spending.

How quickly significant accessibility improvements come could be affected by how soon a third track plans comes together. A feasibility study 2 years ago about how a third track and other upgrades would help to address capacity issues between West Natick and Weston showed good results. Now a more detailed study is underway (backed by millions in funding) to take action on recommendations from that study in Wellesley and beyond, pending engineering, environmental and other reviews, DeDominicis said.

Addressing concerns that current Rail Vision discussion has included talk of frequency being upped from Auburndale into Boston, Coholan urged residents to make their political reps aware of their needs in Wellesley, too.

Regarding fare collection, those who buy the increasingly expensive monthly passes get frustrated when the T caters to weekend users with bargains and fails to collect fares from those on crowded cars when conductors can’t get to them or the staff is thin. Coholan said commuter rail operator Keolis is taking steps to put in place better technological systems, including one like that used on buses where passengers tap in and tap out a card or phone to register their fares. The warning here is that if you don’t tap out, you’ll get charged for a longer ride than you actually took, and you can foresee this happening on crowded trains or platforms where people can’t access the readers when hurrying to work or home. Though Coholan said the T is thinking creatively about this, and you could imagine tapping gear at a South Station coffee shop or wherever passengers might be before or after their trip. The new system, dubbed AFC 2.0, is in the design phase, and is planned for rollout sooner than later, DeDominicis said.

Tech upgrades will need to go hand-in-hand with policy improvements. Coholan, who spent years as a locomotive engineer, said the transportation organizations want to work with legislators to enact policies that would make it a lot pricier for people to skip out on fares intentionally. As college students in the audience said, systems in other parts of the world make it expensive and socially unacceptable not to pay your fares.

As one attendee mentioned, he and his wife will probably be retired by the time the most meaningful changes planned by the T take place. We’re still looking at a few years of schematic designs before 4 or 5 years of construction kick in. A third rail could go a long way toward improving capacity and frequency, though the public needs to understand that there are lots of differences between how a commuter rail operates and how a subway operates—commuter rails trains are designed to travel a lot faster and can’t be right on top of each other for safety reasons.

This meeting was a good start for the T in connecting with the town, and it sounds as if many more meetings could take place in the future as the transportation organization and town coordinate and negotiate on how to move forward.

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