The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has decided not to shut down the commuter rail after 9 p.m. on weekdays, granting a reprieve to a small group of riders who still depend on late-night trains during the pandemic.
The MBTA had floated the idea of ending late-night trains as part of a broader slate of service cuts that are taking effect this winter. But on Monday, transit officials told their oversight board they would be able to still run late trains on each line, with final trips leaving Boston around 11 p.m., to “support the objective of maintaining service for key workers and transit-critical populations.”
Overall, commuter rail ridership is down nearly 90 percent from pre-pandemic levels. But rush-hour demand has decreased at the greatest rate — most likely reflecting the massive shift by downtown office employees to remote work over the past year, according to MBTA officials. But the estimated 535 people riding after 9 p.m. represent more than 18 percent of pre-pandemic ridership at those hours, according to MBTA data.
The MBTA said it will consider these and other trends as it crafts a new commuter rail schedule that will take effect in April, geared to running inbound or outbound trains roughly hourly throughout the day, while pulling back on rush-hour service. The final schedule will be announced next month.
“A good amount of our assets, resources, and trains are built around the peaks,” deputy general manager Jeff Gonneville said. “What this is going to do is essentially smooth out those peaks throughout the day.”
Officials described the move as a step toward a long-term shift away from a traditional rail schedule centered on morning and evening commutes to an all-day model that transit experts refer to as “regional rail.”
Jarred Johnson, director of the Boston advocacy group Transit Matters, has long called for such a change. While he has pushed for more frequent commuter rail service, he said placing less focus on the traditional rush hours is a good first step.
“Getting to a more clock-based schedule and not having the service be set by white-collar workers and their schedule is a critical part of regional rail,” he said. After the pandemic, “we’re not likely to see the same huge rush hour at the times we’re used to seeing.”
The new schedule will still offer less commuter rail service than a year ago. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in federal support, the MBTA has moved to reduce service levels across much of the system to match low pandemic-era ridership, a plan that has already ended weekend service on a number of less heavily used lines. Bus and subway service will be reduced in the coming weeks, though certain busier routes will see fewer cuts or none at all. Details are available at mbta.com/servicechanges.
The plan announced Monday, however, marks a victory for late-night commuter rail riders who were at risk of losing access to off-hour jobs.
Late hours have never been popular for commuter rail travel, and North and South stations are especially quiet without sporting events or concerts that draw crowds into Boston. But many of those still riding have no other option.
The inbound trains to Boston are also important during these hours, carrying overnight workers to security or custodial jobs before they commute home in the morning. Some of them had worried about the pending decision on the service.
“I just hope they don’t do that. It would be messing up my life even more,” Brandon Tobin, a 25-year-old custodian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said at North Station on a recent Thursday night as he came into the city on the Newburyport line. “I would have to find another job.”
Last year, MBTA officials announced plans to suspend commuter rail trips after 9 p.m. but later said they would delay the decision. After learning they would receive more than $250 million from the latest federal relief bill, officials said they would devote some of the money to late-night riders, possibly by running buses instead.
The final plan will use trains that are headed out of the city to their overnight layover areas. This will require passengers on three lines — Newburyport, Kingston, and Needham — to transfer to other trains partway through their trip.
The MBTA expects to save some $30 million from a full year of reduced service, although it’s unclear how long the new schedule will last. Officials have said they will chart service levels for the summer and beyond as part of the annual budget process this spring.
These levels are likely to reflect ridership, which will hinge on a number of factors, including the coronavirus vaccine rollout, whether workers return to the office, and if major events return to the city. Even under optimistic projections, ridership could lag pre-pandemic levels through 2021, especially on the commuter rail, according to the MBTA’s forecast.