Midnight ride: Commuter rail’s innovative streak

A midnight marathon rider waits with his bicycle to board the commuter line toward Hopkinton last year.

Baylor Bennet

A midnight marathon rider waits with his bicycle to board the commuter line toward Hopkinton last year.

Boston, the hub of entrepreneurial public transit? Well, perhaps not quite yet, but the MBTA’s commuter rail system is running an extra nonstop train Sunday night from South Station to Southborough — for the benefit of bicyclists making an annual midnight ride from Hopkinton into Boston on the marathon route. The special train comes as a welcome sign that the T and contractor Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail can respond in timely, creative ways to serve customer needs.

Riders inaugurated the unsanctioned ride in 2009 as a special, communal way to feel a part of marathon revelry on nearly car-less streets. But there was an explosion of interest last year; the number of riders who showed up last year at South Station for the final regularly scheduled train was double what organizers expected, forcing the addition of an extra train. The T and MBCR could have banned bicycles altogether on the last train, but instead came up with special train for 700 cyclists. To cover those costs, a ticket goes for $15, nearly double the usual fare. But cyclists clearly didn’t mind; the train sold out.

In general, cyclists are an intriguing market niche for the T’s commuter rail; the system makes it easier for them to try new routes all across the region. But the midnight train also hints at something else: the broader need for major civic and economic entities to encourage, and even become part of, promising new activities. Let’s hope the midnight train is the first of many other innovations like it.

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