The T hired Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad 10 years ago to run its trains, not fill them with riders — and unfortunately, that’s all it got. Over the decade that MBCR has held the contract to operate the sprawling commuter rail system, the service itself has improved, albeit with plenty of hiccups. But ridership hasn’t followed. According to statistics, commuter rail ridership on the system’s 12 lines has ticked steadily downward, falling by 12.5 percent over a decade by one measure.
Now, as MBCR and another bidder, Keolis, seek a new contract, those numbers are coming under scrutiny. Assigning all the blame to MBCR would be unfair; there are plenty of other factors, including the T’s fare increases, that probably played a role in turning away potential customers. But the fundamental problem with blaming MBCR for the trend is that the operator lacks a mandate to boost ridership. If the T wants to judge the next operator based on ridership trends — and it should — it has to make recruiting new passengers an explicit part of the contractor’s job.