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On time, most of the time

If you’re taking a commuter train south of Boston, which line has the greatest chance of making you late for work?

It’s the Providence line — although the odds are still very good that you’ll arrive on time.

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The Providence line was on time 95.8 percent of the time in 2012, meeting the rail line

Courtney Gunnon of Norton, waits on the platform in Mansfield for the arriving Wickford Junction train to South Station during a recent morning commute.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Courtney Gunnon of Norton, waits on the platform in Mansfield for the arriving Wickford Junction train to South Station during a recent morning commute.

company’s goal of a 95 percent or better on-time rate. The Providence train is the busiest of all the 14 commuter rail lines and carried more than 5 million passengers between July 2012 and June 2013. Four lines south of Boston were in the 96 to 97 percent range.

This year, the Providence line’s performance was slightly better, with an on-time performance through October of 96.73, according to the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which runs the commuter rail lines under contract with the MBTA.

While big storms, like the snow that hit the region last week, and breakdowns can cause frustration for any commuter, the rail lines generally get good grades from riders.

Most people interviewed during two days of rides across several Massachusetts commuter lines were happy with their lines, and stoic about the occasional delay; if they were late for work by a little bit, it wasn’t that big a deal. Others were frustrated and angry about late trains because their bosses are not very understanding when they show up late for work.

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

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The overall on-time performance for all rail lines was above 95 percent in 2012 and so far in 2013, according to MBCR’s data.

Linda Borschuk and Danya Larkin read as they ride.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Linda Borschuk and Danya Larkin read as they ride.

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

The current contractor 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, an independent body made up of representatives from the 175 cities and towns serviced by the MBTA.

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

Commuter Railroad’s 95 percent on-time performance comes with a large asterisk. Delays outside its control — medical or police emergencies, snowstorms, slow freight trains that have 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 Rail. The company pays a fine for late trains that are its responsibility.

Using delays from any cause to calculate Commuter Railroad’s on-time record drops its performance by about 4 percentage points, according to a Globe analysis.

There are many reasons for delays. A fire Monday afternoon at a rail maintenance yard in Somerville meant 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 don’t care whose fault it is. “Most people can’t roll into work 20 minutes late routinely and not have repercussions.”

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.

According to the MBTA’s website, a monthly pass runs between $70 to $314, depending on the starting point in the suburbs, which can be a good deal when compared with the cost of gas and upkeep of a car, parking in the city, 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 doesn’t work, or if the cars are dirty, she said, highlighting problems that could discourage them from riding.

“If ridership is growing, you are providing a service that people are willing to pay for. 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 riders.

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

The system is working hard to improve its on-time performance, he said. New locomotives and passenger cars will make a real difference simply because they are less prone to break down, Hogan said. The average age of the T’s locomotives is about 25 years.

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 spokesman for Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad. A fatality delays trains on average 40 minutes, with the trains directly impacted being late by more than an hour.

Several commuters complained the text alert system for late or canceled trains was poor. Farmelant noted the system has been changed to make it more responsive. The same information is also posted on signs at stations and the company’s Twitter feed, @MBCR_info .

Some riders complained that the Providence line was so crowded that they had to stand for long periods of time.

  South Station is close to capacity at peak times, so adding more trains is not practical, Farmelant said. However, new double-decker cars are being added, which might help.

“It’s a very popular line,” said Farmelant. “The line, to a degree, has been a victim of its own popularity.”

Hogan said it’s difficult to add more service because commuter rail trains share this line with Amtrak trains, and the line is controlled by Amtrak. Plus, Hogan said, there’s an odd cultural problem at work — people often stand when there are unoccupied middle seats in the three-across rows because they are loathe to ask the seated people to move their belongings.

Inside the enclosed station at Mansfield one recent morning, people waited quietly out of the cold. Celia Courtright of Franklin figured the train is on time 95 percent of the time. But when it’s late, “it’s really late,” said the senior engineer for a digital advertising startup within walking distance of South Station. In some ways, that’s not so bad, because she can work on her laptop. She much prefers the train to driving. “It’s faster than driving, particularly on days like this, when it’s snowing,” she said.

The 8:44 train to South Station quickly filled up. People stood at either end of the passenger cars, answering e-mails, reading on their phones, or listening to iPods.

Charlie Duquette, a freshman at Bunker Hill Community College, takes the train every day to school and has no problems with its on-time performance. His complaint is that the train is too crowded. Taking the train home at rush hour, he often is on his feet from South Station to Sharon or Mansfield — about 45 minutes.

“It’s incredibly packed,” said the forensic psychology major. “There are never any seats.” He spends much of his train time reading psychology books.

Alex LiDonni of Norwood considers the train a necessary evil. Yes, it’s faster to take the train from Canton Junction or Norwood Depot than driving. But the delays infuriate him — and the fact that delays cost him vacation time. He is a paralegal for a law firm, and he has to burn vacation time when he punches in late.

Even more aggravating is that he isn’t reimbursed for late trains. “They still collect the fee,” he said. “There’s a 30- or 40-minute delay, and you want to scream, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globemattc.
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