Patty McEvoy spent five years riding the Middleborough commuter rail back and forth into Boston before giving up.
The first few years weren’t bad, she said. But today, it’s too crowded. She can’t find a seat, there is no place to safely hold on, and conductors can’t get through to collect fares.
“They never have enough cars,’’ she said. “After the fifth morning of not being able to get a seat and being yelled at by a conductor, I was done paying that kind of money to have an awful morning. I just couldn’t take it any longer.’’
Now, instead of getting on the train at the Holbrook/Randolph stop, the Brockton resident drives to Braintree and takes the Red Line subway into Boston, where she works as a senior technical analyst in the Financial District.
“It’s a longer commute but less of a headache,’’ she said. “You’re paying a large sum of money to fight with people just to sit down. I’d rather take the commuter rail but not if it’s a frustration every day.’’
McEvoy is one of many commuters frustrated by the daily hassle of getting into work. As more people take the commuter rail into Boston to avoid the growing traffic congestion, critics say the system has struggled to accommodate the demand.
Between 2012 and 2018, commuter rail ridership grew from 104,574 to 126,754 trips per weekday, an increase of 21.2 percent, according to a report released by the MBTA in January.
The Middleborough line had the fourth highest growth by percentage among the 12 rail lines. The others with the most growth were Fairmount, Framingham/Worcester, and Greenbush, which begins in Scituate.
Riders complain about delays, crowded trains, not enough parking, the high cost of fares, and the lack of fare collection.
On Nov. 4, the MBTA’s oversight board committed to a “transformation” of the state’s commuter rail system, including an initial push to electrify service on at least three lines. The board left open questions about timing, the overall price tag, and how the sweeping changes would be funded.
The MBTA and Keolis Commuter Services, which operates and maintains the system, acknowledge that improvements are needed. While the long-term goal is to increase service and modernize the entire system, the state already is taking steps to address crowding, reliability, and fare collection.
“The MBTA and Keolis work together to continuously improve reliability by identifying the causes of delays, analyzing trends, and implementing corrective actions, on a line-by-line basis,’’ said Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the MBTA. “The MBTA will continue to make targeted investments laser focused on continued improvements in reliability and on-time performance.’’
Sometimes an issue can be addressed with a schedule change or better communication with Amtrak or freight carriers, he said.
One example is the recent addition of a coach on one early morning and one late afternoon weekday train on the Fitchburg line, according to Keolis. The additional coach has added capacity on one of the system’s lower-performing lines and improved the on-time performance.
Other issues, such as crowding, require major capital investments, Pesaturo said.
Chris Fuchs takes the Plymouth train from Abington each day for his job in Boston’s Financial District. And while it’s reliable most of the time, he is frustrated by the lack of fare collections on his train. He said the coaches are so congested that conductors can’t get through.
He said it’s unfair that monthly pass holders end up footing the bill for passengers who don’t have to pay.
But he doesn’t have a better option since driving takes longer and is more expensive.
“When it’s running as it should, it’s a phenomenal way to travel,’’ he said.
Jennifer Myers, the communications director for state Senator Ed Kennedy of Lowell, has been taking the train from Lowell to Boston five days a week since January.
“I’ve enjoyed it for the most part,’’ Myers said. “It’s convenient. I can take a nap, listen to a podcast, and get ready for my day.’’
By getting on in Lowell, the first stop toward Boston, she doesn’t have to worry about finding a seat. And while there are occasional delays, she said most riders take it in stride because they know it’s still usually faster than driving.
According to Keolis, the average 10-year on-time performance for the commuter rail is 87 percent. In 2018, it was 89 percent. On-time trains arrived at their final stop no more than 4 minutes 59 seconds later than scheduled.
Over a 30-day period from Oct. 3 to Nov. 1, the average reliability on the commuter rail was 84 percent.
The Fairmount line — which runs largely through Boston neighborhoods — had the best on-time performance at 95 percent, while the Fitchburg line was the worst at 78 percent.
“While there is much more work to do, we are seeing progress,’’ said Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for Keolis. “This progress is taking place while a very high volume of infrastructure work is underway and while running more trains. Commuter rail runs 10,000 more trains a year, comparing 2014 to 2018, and with South Coast Rail, the Foxboro pilot, and other areas of increased service, we know this will continue to grow. More trains help reduce congestion and provide a climate-friendly transit option.’’
To improve on-time performance, the MBTA is spending $106 million to completely overhaul the 37 oldest locomotives in the fleet. Eight already have been completed, two more will be done this fall, and the rest will be finished by the end of 2022. Pesaturo said the rebuilt engines are performing like new locomotives, leading to improved reliability. According to Keolis, locomotive mechanical failure is the top cause of delays.
To address capacity, the MBTA has purchased 80 new bilevel coaches, which will go into service beginning in 2022. The MBTA also is soliciting bids for an additional 100 new bilevel coaches. This new contract will also include options for an additional 100 bilevel coaches.
The MBTA also is planning to spend $33 million to rehab 20 out-of-service coaches. Some are expected back in service next year and all 20 will be available by the middle of 2021.
To improve fare collections, gates will be installed, similar to those used for subways. The gate project is expected to be completed in 2020.
For the future, the MBTA formed an advisory committee for its Rail Vision project, which identified a variety of potential options for transforming the system to improve performance and increase ridership.
Options ranged from increasing service to key stations within the Route 128 corridor to electrifying and adding service and parking through the system. Initial capital costs ranged from $1.7 billion to $29 million, while operation and maintenance costs ranged from $130 million to $643 million.
The MBTA presented several options to its Fiscal and Management Control Board in early October. Board members discussed the options on Nov. 4 but did not support any of the specific proposals. Instead, the board endorsed several resolutions, including one that directs the MBTA to “transform the current commuter rail line into a significantly more productive, equitable, and decarbonized enterprise.’’
The board also directed the MBTA to prepare for a first phase, which calls for electrification along the Providence/Stoughton commuter rail line, the Fairmount line, and a section of the Newburyport/Rockport Line between Boston and Lynn. The Fairmount and northern line would be designed to have service and fares similar to rapid transit.
Several municipal leaders attended the October board meeting, urging members to support more frequent commuter rail service. They included Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee, and Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria.
They said more frequent service and cheaper prices are necessary for economic growth throughout the Commonwealth.
Walsh, who spoke about the particular need to expand service on the Fairmount line to serve city neighborhoods, also called for additional service throughout the region.
“Our residents and workforce are speaking loud and clear,’’ Walsh said. “They want the service, they certainly need the service and they will use the service.’’
He said city residents don’t just work in Boston and the city’s workforce doesn’t just live in Boston. That’s why the entire system needs to be improved, he said.
“We are part of a regional economy and a regional statewide transportation network,’’ he said. “We need a system that supports the demands of today and unlocks the opportunities of the future here in the city of Boston and the Commonwealth.’’
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.