Metro

As commuter rail service improves, Worcester/Framingham line lags

The commuter rail station in Framingham.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
The commuter rail station in Framingham.

To the dismay of its loyal riders, the Worcester/Framingham line has become something of a problem child for the MBTA’s commuter rail.

Nearly one in five trains on the heavily trafficked line was late during the second week of May. That stood in stark contrast to the rest of the network run by Keolis Commuter Services, which reported that 94 percent of all its trains ran on time, the highest mark in more than two years.

The delays on the Worcester/Framingham line have persisted for years, and many riders have all but lost hope that service will get better — even after promises of improvements and hikes to already hefty prices for monthly passes.

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“We’re very frustrated, but I don’t think anybody feels like they can do anything about it,” said Chris Perault, a Natick resident who said her train is late almost every day. It’s gotten so bad, she said, that coworkers have suggested she drive to Needham to take that line instead.

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The Needham line boasted a 94 percent on-time rate over the four previous weeks, according to data from last week, compared with 79 percent on the Worcester/Framingham Line, which runs through Wellesley and Newton on its way to Boston — the lowest rate of all the lines, according to Keolis figures. Things picked up this Wednesday, when about 93 percent of the Worcester/Framingham line trains ran on time.

Transit officials have promised riders on that line — the commuter rail’s second busiest — that better days are coming.A long-running project to replace railroad ties will be done within weeks, and a second track has been added to the section of the line that has had just one.

“All of those investments will help to improve the passenger experience,” said Tory Mazzola, Keolis’s spokesman.

The schedule is also being adjusted to improve on-time rates and include a new station, said David Scorey, the company’s general manager.

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Officials at the MBTA, which oversees the commuter rail, said “millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements” to the line will pay dividends.

“These targeted investments will result in safe and reliable service for many years to come,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.

Despite the assurances, riders remain skeptical. Some were concerned that the addition of a new stop — the Boston Landing station next to the New Balance Headquarters in Brighton, which opened Monday — could lead to more crowds and delays. Others note that completing the construction won’t help with equipment problems — locomotive breakdowns and a problem with an Amtrak switch last Tuesday led to four cancellations and cascading delays on the line.

More than 16,000 passengers took the Worcester/Framingham train on weekdays during the 2013 fiscal year, the latest figures available. That was surpassed by only the Providence line, with 19,600 rides a day.

In November, the MBTA created an “action committee” to study the problem and said it would test some short-term solutions, such as adding more conductors to crowded trains.

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The line has been slowed by speed restrictions for years, in part because of efforts to fix long-term problems. Over the past three years, the MBTA worked to “de-stress” tracks that had expanded in warm temperatures, increasing their chance of buckling.

During construction of the new Brighton station, speed limits were lowered from 50 to 30 miles per hour along a 2-mile stretch.

Keolis is also nearly finished replacing tens of thousands of railroad ties, work that had forced speeds in some sections to be loweredfrom 60 miles per hour to half that.

Mary Connaughton, a director at the Pioneer Institute who rides the line, said she finds it hard to believe that the completion of the projects will immediately improve service. Keolis has also struggled to maintain enough working locomotives and coaches, she noted, although it has recently caught up on both.

“Some of these problems will be alleviated, but not the mechanical issues related to the trains and locomotives,” she said.

Other riders say the MBTA and Keolis deserve some time to prove themselves. David Perry, a longtime rider from Ashland who writes a blog about the line, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about better service.

“I know that I sound like the eternal optimist, but I think we’re nearing the end of this big construction process that’s really gone on for a couple of years,” he said. “I think we should withhold judgment on on-time performance until this project is done.”

Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.