It won’t reach the standard of rapid transit, but the MBTA will expand service on the Fairmount Line later this year by adding eight daily trips, a major victory for Boston riders.
Transit advocates and neighborhood activists have pushed for years for more frequent trains. As the only commuter line exclusively in Boston, serving majority-minority neighborhoods with limited access to rail service, the line should run more like the subway than the less frequent commuter rail, they’ve argued.
Proponents have also maintained that ridership would increase if trains ran more frequently. Fairmount ridership has typically lagged at fewer than 3,000 riders a day, compared to 15,000 or more on busier commuter rail lines. The branch runs between South Station and Readville, through parts of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.
"It was never just about the stops. It was about the stops and the frequent service,” said Marvin Martin, a longtime advocate for expanded Fairmount service. “We got the stops but we didn’t get the frequent service, so in my mind it was never completed.”
Monday’s decision by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s governing board to add more trips is a “first step” toward achieving the goal of high-frequency service, Martin said.
The Fairmount Line may be poised for much greater upgrades in the future. In November, the MBTA’s governing board designated it as one of three lines that should be given priority as officials move to transition parts of the commuter rail to electric-powered service with trains every 15 minutes, all day. The MBTA has not yet outlined a timeline for that project and is still building an internal office to oversee the transition.
In the meantime, the eight new trips are scheduled to begin in May. At that point, the line will have 24 daily trips in each direction.
Proposed as a one-year test by Boston officials, the new trips will include inbound trains at 5:10 a.m. and 3:05 p.m., and outbound trips at 9:15 a.m. and midnight. They’re largely meant to serve early-morning and late-night riders, and students heading home from school, officials said. Some of the trips will take advantage of trains that were already running without passengers to move equipment between locations.
The additional trips will cost the MBTA about $1.1 million a year, and the agency expects to spend about $100,000 to market them. The MBTA expects the service will generate at least 185 new rides a day, the number necessary to justify the cost, though officials believe ridership could increase by up to 400.
The MBTA is also planning to install machines at Fairmount Line stops that will allow riders to pay with plastic CharlieCards, which are usually only valid for the subway and bus. Fairmount Line advocates have asked for this feature for years, saying low-income riders who have money stored on CharlieCards for buses were less likely to use the line if they had to pay for it separately.
In recent years, MBTA officials had told those riders they would be able to use CharlieCards when the agency completes a major project to overhaul its fare technology. But late last year, officials announced that megaproject will take years longer than expected, so they decided to address the Fairmount Line separately.
“We thought it was important to come up with the means to provide this initial step . . . to these customers, who have asked for this for a period of time," MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said.
Most trips on the Fairmount Line cost the same as a subway ride, $2.40, except those to and from the southernmost stop at Readville, which cost $6.50. With the CharlieCard readers, Fairmount riders will be allowed a free transfer between buses and the Fairmount Line, though that will not apply to the Red Line or Silver Line at South Station. The MBTA’s policy on that could change eventually — it is partially the result of a software issue that limits rider transfers between different forms of transit, said Laurel Paget-Seekins, an assistant general manager at the MBTA.
The MBTA on Monday also detailed plans to hire several new workers to oversee plans to expand bus service, including a new “assistant general manager of bus transformation.”
But part of the plan came under sharp criticism as union members and state lawmakers packed the board room to denounce the potential outsourcing of maintenance and operations of 60 new buses, expected later this year.
Leaders of the agency’s bus operator and mechanics unions were among those who called on the agency to abandon the idea, arguing existing workers have the experience and expertise to handle the work.
The MBTA negotiated the right to outsource work for any new service as part of agreements with the unions in recent years. Officials have said that doing so could have benefits and drawbacks; it might save money but could delay the start of the new bus service by a few months. Officials are also considering keeping the work in-house, and a decision is expected later this year.