The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will revise new commuter rail schedules unveiled last week and delay putting them into effect until spring 2016, responding to loud criticism from commuters and state legislators who say they were blindsided by service cuts.
State Senator Jason Lewis, a Democrat from Winchester who spearheaded opposition to the schedules, said he was pleased that the MBTA listened to their concerns.
“The MBTA clearly heard what we were saying, what our constituents were saying, and I think that they understood that this process needs another look and it needs more time,” he said.
Instead of implementing new schedules for lines that run out of North Station on Dec. 14, the MBTA will now release revised schedule proposals for all commuter rail lines — including those running out of South Station — in December.
The MBTA will then seek “extensive public engagement” before putting the new schedules into effect, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
After the MBTA quietly released the new North Station schedules last week, commuters blasted the timetables for eliminating heavily used trains and stops during rush hour. Eleven legislators met with MBTA officials this week and asked them not to go forward with the new schedules.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she is confident that the revised schedules will benefit riders, but she said the MBTA needs to do more than provide reliable service.
“It needs to listen to those customers and understand their needs and concerns and incorporate them into service planning,” she said. “We understand that even small challenges in long-standing schedules impact the daily lives of our riders, and we need to hear and incorporate their feedback before finalizing schedule changes.”
The criticism of the new schedules comes as the MBTA and its commuter rail operator, Keolis, try to prepare for the coming winter. Commuter rail riders bore the brunt of the delays caused by record-breaking snow last winter, and the new schedules were supposed to help mitigate such problems.
MBTA officials have a $330,000 contract with HDR to create commuter rail schedules that add rush hour trains and cut down on delays. The schedules for the Newburyport/Rockport, Haverhill, Lowell, and Fitchburg lines were slated to change in December, and the MBTA originally planned to release new schedules for the lines that travel through South Station in the spring.
Last week, MBTA officials acknowledged there would be two fewer trains running overall every day under the new schedules for the North Station lines, but they said that the agency had added more trains during both the morning and evening rush hour, the busiest times for the trains. Officials also pointed out that more trains would run the entire length of a line, which meant the commuter rail trains would cover more miles every day.
The MBTA first sought to reschedule its commuter rail lines to tackle “schedule anomalies” that make it difficult for the trains to run on time. In October, officials said the changes would be relatively minor, and departure times would not be significantly different.
But the schedules unveiled last week eliminated a number of stops, which many commuters have decried as major inconveniences. Some who ride the Fitchburg line worried that the new changes would get children to school in Concord far too early or far too late. Others on the Haverhill line said they lost several options for going home after rush hour. One rider started an online petition asking the MBTA to reinstate the Wakefield stop on a Haverhill rush hour train, and it garnered more than 1,200 signatures.
Local legislators also got involved. In a letter to the MBTA, Lewis and other legislators said that while the Fitchburg and Newburyport/Rockport lines gained daily train trips, the Lowell and Haverhill lines had each lost seven trips.
“Our constituents are naturally concerned — why, of all the commuter lines in the state, are ours targeted for service reductions?” they wrote.
Five state senators and six state representatives from communities affected by the schedules then gave MBTA and state Transportation Department officials a stack of complaints from constituents during a private meeting on Monday.
Lewis said he and other legislators will continue to be involved.
“We’re not done yet,” he said. “We’re going to be scrutinizing the revised schedules that come in December, and our constituents will surely provide us with their feedback.”
Jennifer Boettcher, the Wakefield woman who started the online petition, said she believed the public’s outcry and legislators’ actions made the difference.
“This is the right thing to do,” she said. “I think they should have done it in the first place, but it’s great that they listened.”