Federal transit officials say they are concerned about the disproportionate number of cancellations on a Boston commuter rail line that serves predominately low-income and minority neighborhoods, but have determined the MBTA did not violate civil rights guidelines because other lines were also plagued with cancellations.
In October, the Globe reported that the Fairmount Line, the only commuter rail line that runs entirely within Boston, had far more cancellations than suburban routes, and US Representative Michael Capuano called for a civil rights investigation into the disparity. The Fairmount Line serves a higher proportion of minority riders than many of the MBTA’s other lines.
Using data from April to October 2016, federal officials found the Fairmount Line experienced more cancellations than expected, compared to other lines. In a letter sent Friday to state transportation officials, the Federal Transit Administration wrote that although it had determined the MBTA had not violated civil rights guidelines, the high numbers of cancellations on some lines was worrisome.
“FTA remains concerned, however, with the significantly higher than expected cancellation rates on some lines and wants to ensure a similar situation does not occur in the future,” wrote Dawn Sweet, a director of its office of civil rights. “FTA expects its recipients to monitor their service to ensure such service is provided equitably.”
The MBTA has agreed to disclose the number of cancellations on each line for the next year to ensure certain routes aren’t affected more than others, Sweet wrote.
The findings come as free rides are being offered on the Fairmount Line to help boost ridership, an initiative funded by $53,000 in campaign funds from Capuano. Although ridership has tripled on the line since 2012, the number of riders remains low, compared to other lines.
State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said steps have been taken to ensure that Keolis Commuter Services, which runs the commuter rail for the MBTA, does not disproportionately affect certain groups.
“We’ve been working more closely with Keolis since that problem to make sure that when they have to cancel, they do a better job of distributing the pain of cancellations,” she said.
Statistics from Keolis show the Fairmount Line, which runs from Readville in Hyde Park through Mattapan and Dorchester to South Station, had significantly more cancellations than any other line for much of Kelois’s tenure.
Data released in late 2016 showed that between the time Keolis took over in July 2014 and November 2016, it canceled 530 trains. The next-highest number of cancellations on a single line was half that, on the Lowell Line — which also runs more trains.
But in its letter, the FTA noted that high cancellation rates were systemic, affecting several lines — including Haverhill, Newburyport, and Lowell — that serve fewer minority riders.
Keolis told the FTA that it canceled trains primarily because of low ridership, according to the letter, and that Fairmount Line riders also had bus service at their stops.
Federal officials also said the MBTA immediately took steps to remedy the problem, including meeting with Keolis to establish a new policy on cancellations. They also adopted monitoring procedures that required its chief diversity officer to review reports of delays and cancellations.
Fairmount Line cancellations dropped off significantly after the Globe’s report, even during times of high cancellations.
In response to the investigation’s findings, Keolis spokesman Tory Mazzola said the company’s highest priority is “ensuring convenient, reliable, and quality service.”
“We are pleased with the FTA’s finding that we handled last year’s cancellation challenges equitably and remain committed to continuously improving our processes and enhancing the passenger experience,” he said.
It’s not the first time the MBTA has been hit with a similar complaint. The FTA also scolded the authority for attempting to cancel late-night service before analyzing whether it would disproportionately affect low-income and minority riders.
The FTA’s finding disappointed some Fairmount Line advocates, including Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group. Mares said it’s the “wrong conclusion” to say that civil rights guidelines were not violated.
“Only because not all lines with high minority ridership experienced this injustice doesn’t mean that the riders in the Fairmount Line weren’t wronged,” he said.
But Capuano said he was glad the investigation did not find the transit system had been “intentionally discriminatory.”
“My hope and belief is that everyone learned their lesson,” he said. “I don’t think it was ever intentionally done in a discriminatory manner. Nonetheless, it was important to check, and everyone is going to do the right thing from this point.”