Looking to boost ridership on a system that typically serves weekday commuters heading to downtown Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will test a weekend discount on the commuter rail this summer.
Starting June 9, riders can pay $10 for a weekend’s worth of unlimited rides, anywhere on the commuter rail. Approved by the T’s governing board Monday, the program will run through Labor Day weekend.
It probably won’t benefit a weekend commuter from nearby communities like Chelsea or Allston, who can take the commuter rail downtown for $2.25 each way.
But it may be enticing for riders traveling farther to or from Boston. For example, a round trip to Newburyport currently costs $23, so $10 for a beach trip or two to Plum Island might look like a good deal.
“We’re trying to take this beyond just commuter rail,” said Evan Rowe, the T’s revenue chief. “It should be leisure rail.”
The discount will not apply to the CapeFlyer, which provides seasonal weekend service to Cape Cod. Round trips between South Station and the Cape cost between $35 and $40.
The weekend discount mimics a similar weekend pass program on Chicago’s commuter rail system. MBTA riders can buy the tickets on trains, at ticket windows, and through the MTicket app.
The MBTA provides an estimated 120,000 passenger trips on the commuter rail each weekday, but the figure is much lower on weekends: roughly 16,600 on Saturdays and 9,000 on Sundays. Since it costs the T the same amount to run service regardless of passenger counts, officials are gambling that the discount could fill those empty trains — and possibly make more money.
The commuter rail runs much less frequently on weekends, and it won’t be running any more frequently this summer. Also, weekend service often bears the brunt of service disruptions. The Framingham-Worcester Line, for example, will have 11 straight weekend disruptions starting Saturday to install new train safety systems, including a stretch from June 23 to Aug. 5 when buses will replace trains between South Station and Framingham.
Still, the weekend discount should benefit coastal communities that want more tourists without more traffic, said Paul Regan, who represents cities and towns served by the MBTA as executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board.
“The South Shore in particular has been advocating for this,” Regan said. “I see families taking advantage of this. Now that the sticker shock of taking commuter rail is going to go away a little bit, I can see people traveling out to Rockport or to Plymouth or to Gloucester. I think it’s going to be great.”
MBTA general manager Luis Ramirez said the T will study how the discount affects ridership, but he “would hope a program like this could be more permanent.”
The discount comes amid broader discussions about commuter rail fares and the best way to operate the system. The T has embarked on a long-term study of how to best use the commuter rail, which will consider options like running more frequent service in urban settings, more express service from far-off locations, and adjusting schedules to make reverse commutes from Boston out to its suburbs easier. Others are calling on the T to electrify the system, which currently runs on diesel fuel.
Meanwhile, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu has been pushing the agency to reclassify several stations within the city’s borders as Zone 1A — the cheapest fare, so that all stops within Boston are priced uniformly. On Monday, MBTA officials said the commuter rail zones are based on distance from North and South stations, regardless of municipal borders, though there are not set definitions for where the zones should change.
Laurel Paget-Seekins, the T’s director of fare policy and analytics, said that though riders pay higher fares if they travel farther distances, the average fare per mile is lower for riders who travel farther. But she also noted that there’s a big difference between the costs of a $2.25 Zone 1A fare and Zone 1, the next lowest fare, which costs $6.25. “So perhaps there’s room for a zone in between those two, in terms of pricing,” she said.Adam Vaccaro can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.