On time, most of the time

Gregg Zoske of Gloucester is content with her commute to Lynn.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Gregg Zoske of Gloucester is content with her commute to Lynn

If you are taking a commuter train north of Boston, which lines have the greatest chance of making you late for work?

The Rockport and Newburyport lines — although the odds are still good you will arrive on time.

The Rockport line was on time 87.31 percent of the time in 2012, the last full year of reporting. Newburyport was on time 91.12 percent of the time. That compares with the rail line company’s contractual goal of a 95 percent on-time rate.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Jeannette Akers of Dorchester checks her phone while riding the train to Lynn.

The Rockport line had the worst performance of the 14 commuter rail lines in Greater Boston.

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So far this year, through October, the two lines have done better — 91.65 percent on time for Rockport and 94.77 percent for Newburyport.

While breakdowns and big storms, like the snow that hit Boston last week, can make for a day of frustration for any commuter, the rail lines get generally good grades from riders.

How do riders feel about the two lines’ performances?

“It’s pretty good,” said Amanda Tower, a Rockport student making her way to Salem State University. It gets her to classes on time, she said. While on the train, she spends her time knitting and reading. For Christmas, “my family is getting scarves,” she said.


Most people interviewed during two days of rides across several Massachusetts commuter lines were either happy with their rail line or stoic about the occasional delay — if they were late for work by a little bit, it was not that big a deal. But some were frustrated and angry about the late trains because their bosses are not all that understanding about employees showing up late.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Amanda Tower of Rockport, a Salem State student, works on her classwork on the train.

The overall on-time performance for all rail lines was above 95 percent in 2012 and so far in 2013, according to data from the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which operates the commuter rail network on behalf of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

A new contract to run the commuter lines starts on July 1, with a vote on the contract expected early in the new year. The contenders are Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. and Keolis, an international transit giant.

The Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. currently runs nearly 500 trains a day and carries more than 35 million riders annually.

On-time performance is “critical, absolutely critical” to commuter rail passengers, said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which is an independent board made of representatives from the 175 cities and towns serviced by the MBTA.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Casey Nealon of Boston waits by the door as the train approaches his stop in Salem.


Many delays are the result of dispatch woes caused by berth overcrowding at North and South stations, old signal equipment, and the age of the trains themselves, he said.

Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad’s 95 percent on-time performance comes with a large asterisk. Delays outside the company’s control — medical or police emergencies, snowstorms, slow freights with priority — are not counted.

Breakdowns of passenger cars or locomotives, or problems with infrastructure such as signals and switches, are the responsibility of Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad. The company is fined for late trains that are their responsibility.

If delays caused for any reason are figured in, the lines’ on-time performances are about four percentage points lower, according to a Globe analysis.

There are many reasons for delays. A fire last Monday afternoon at a rail maintenance yard in Somerville meant the cancellation of nine North Station trains. It was unclear early in the week who would be held responsible for those late trains, said a spokesman.

But Regan, speaking in general terms, said riders do not care whose fault it is.

“Most people can’t roll into work 20 minutes late routinely and not have repercussions,” he said.

Stephanie Pollack, associate director at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said the commuter rail has huge advantages over travel by car. The MBTA website shows that a monthly pass can run from $70 to $314 in the suburbs, which can be a good deal when compared with the upkeep of a car, city parking fees, and tolls.

Pollack pointed out, however, that the contract with Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad offers no incentives for growing ridership. People notice when the air conditioning or heat does not work or if the cars are dirty, she said, highlighting problems that could discourage people from riding.

“If ridership is growing, you are providing a service that people are willing to pay for,’’ she said. “If it’s declining, that’s a sign of trouble.”

Ridership has, indeed, dropped. The average number of daily commuters fell 12.5 percent between 2003 and 2013, which runs against the national trend of more commuter rail riders.

But John Hogan, chief transportation officer for Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, said ridership was up 6 percent this fall during peak hours, compared with a year ago.

The system is working hard to improve its on-time performance, he said.

New locomotives and passenger cars will make a real difference for the simple reason that they are less prone to break down, Hogan said. Current locomotives are, on average, 25 years old.

Response time to problems has also improved, he said. If a train breaks down, a replacement typically leaves to replace it within five minutes.

A delay for a breakdown or a medical emergency can have ripple effects through a line, said Scott Farmelant, a Commuter Railroad spokesman. A fatality delays trains on average 40 minutes, with the trains directly affected being late by more than an hour.

Several commuters complained that the text alert system for late or canceled trains is poor. Farmelant said the system has been changed to make it more responsive. The information is also posted at stations and to @MBCR_info on Twitter.

Newburyport and Rockport line delays are often caused by infrastructure problems that do not have easy fixes, Hogan said.

“The major issue we have is three drawbridges going over to North Station, and all three are more than 100 years old,” he said. The drawbridges fail frequently because of their age, and the company has a team that forges new parts as they break.

The lines also have more delays attributed to customers, according to Farmelant, such as beach travel and the boarding and exiting of handicapped customers at older stations.

On recent trips near the end of rush hour, the outbound and inbound trains from North Station to Rockport were running on time and had a relaxed feel, as the cars were not that full.

John Pelletier takes a mellow attitude toward his train ride and its occasional delays.

“I don’t have a problem with them,” said the 27-year-old, who works for the city of Salem. “I give them the benefit of the doubt. Their folks are friendly.”

The New Hampshire native has an unusual commute. He rides his bike from his home in Newton to North Station. That might take an hour, although he can do it in 45 minutes.

Then he packs his bike onto the train to Salem for the last leg. All told, his trip to work can take 1½ hours. Then he does the same thing in the evening.

“I don’t have to go to the gym,” he said. “I really don’t like driving.”

Gregg Zoske is an 11-year commuter train veteran.

“It’s greatly improved the last two or three years,” she said. “The low point was about five years ago.”

Now, the interior decorator for Zimman’s Fabric and Furnishings in Lynn is generally happy with the service.

“I’ve been commuting for 11 years and know many of the veteran conductors by name,” she said. “They are professional and courteous and wonderful.”

Zoske also has found the ride a place to make “important and professional contacts. So it is a social networking tool.”

She said she does not like the weekend train though. The riders do not know train etiquette and are rude and loud, she said.

She spends her train time working, doing crossword puzzles, reading and — on the way back — sleeping.

All in all, it is good for her.

“I love taking the train,” she said.

Matt Carroll can be reached at or followed at @GlobeMattC.