A retired train engineer’s push to return weekend and holiday commuter rail to the Greenbush and Kingston/Plymouth lines is gaining attention from state and local officials, but the MBTA’s tenuous financial position makes success anything but certain.
Richard Prone, who lives in Duxbury and spent part of his career driving local commuter trains, has been talking to area leaders about the problems he sees with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s rationale that lower ridership on those lines justified the agency’s dropping weekend and holiday service in 2012 to help close a budget gap.
Prone argues that several years earlier, when 10-year-old concrete ties began crumbling prematurely along the Kingston/Plymouth and Middleborough/Lakeville lines, weekend replacement work meant riders did not know from week to week whether the trains would be running, or whether a bus would be substituted for part, or all, of the trip. Thus, riders lost confidence in the train.
Cost, too, is a big factor, he said. Not only was previously free weekend parking raised to $4, but park-and-ride lots on Route 3 remained free, with overnight parking allowed, encouraging people to drive, according to Prone. He also noted that fares were raised and family fares abolished. Today, a family of two adults and three teens pays $20 each from Kingston to Boston round trip, for a total of $100 plus parking. Children under 12 ride free.
“All over the system, you have 800-seat trains running around with 700 empty seats,” he said in an interview. “That’s not the way anyone runs a business.”
Prone has met with numerous boards of selectmen, persuading 11 towns — Braintree, Cohasset, Duxbury, Halifax, Hanson, Kingston, Marshfield, Pembroke, Plympton, Scituate, and Weymouth, he said — to write letters to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation supporting restoration of weekend and holiday trains. He made his case in person Feb. 12 at a DOT board of directors meeting.
Now, at his urging, several legislators from this area are planning a community meeting on the issue, to be held April 17 at 7 p.m. at Hanson Town Hall, according to state Representative Josh Cutler, a Duxbury Democrat.
It seems the lines “didn’t really get a fair shake” before the closure, he said.
In the heyday of rail transport in the 1800s, trains on these and adjacent lines carried passengers to the farthest reaches of Southeastern Massachusetts — to Provincetown, New Bedford, and Fall River — as well as to Newport, R.I. The historical Old Colony lines shut down in 1959, the victim of a convergence of factors, including the development of state highways in the 1950s.
Service was reopened to the Kingston/Plymouth and Middleborough/Lakeville lines in 1997, and to the Greenbush line, which terminates in Scituate, in 2007. Plans to restore service to the cities of Fall River and New Bedford have been discussed for decades. Governor Deval Patrick has been a vocal supporter, and the planning process has advanced, but the project still has not been fully funded.
Prone hopes the MBTA’s fiscal year 2015 budget will be amended to include weekend and holiday service to Greenbush and Kingston/Plymouth, but an MBTA spokesman said the agency has no plans to do so.
The budget, which takes effect July 1, is “delicately” balanced, spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail. To Prone’s assertion that lower fares, such as a family fare, would boost ridership, Pesaturo said not a single report from a respected transit analyst supports that position. “Quite frankly, that’s absurd,” he said.
“At this point, the only way to restore weekend service on the Kingston and Greenbush Lines would be to reduce service on other lines that attract more customers,” he said. “We don’t feel that is a prudent way to manage a railroad.”
Ridership data provided by the MBTA for fiscal year 2011, before the service was eliminated, shows ridership was lowest on the Needham, Greenbush, and Kingston/Plymouth lines on Saturdays, even when higher 2009 numbers were used for the latter two in order to compensate for the tie replacement project. Greenbush and Kingston/Plymouth were also the lowest on Sundays, when Needham did not have service.
The average number of Sunday passengers per trip on the Kingston/Plymouth line was 69; on the Greenbush, it was just 55.
Saturday service was eliminated to Needham in 2012. Two other lines also lack weekend service: the short Fairmount line, which terminates in southwestern Boston, and the Stoughton branch of the Providence/Stoughton line.
State Senator Robert Hedlund, Republican of Weymouth, said he finds himself in a difficult position as someone who opposed reopening the Greenbush line for financial reasons but who understands the desire for the service among some local residents. The selectmen in Cohasset, in his district, have asked him to support it, he said.
He and some other members of the local delegation support restoring weekend service to Greenbush on a trial basis, so service would only continue if ridership justifies it.
“If they’re asking for it, then they need to use it, or it’s not going to last long,” he said.
State Representative James Cantwell, Democrat of Marshfield, said he has spoken with the Greater Attleboro Taunton Regional Transit Authority, a bus service that already operates its GATRA buses in Marshfield, about a route that would funnel people to Greenbush Station in Scituate.
Two town administrators, Marshfield’s Rocco Longo and Kingston’s Robert Fennessy, confirmed that they had sent letters to DOT to support weekend and holiday service. In his letter, Fennessy said the cessation of trains has affected many Kingston residents, and that the region offers a “vibrant market” for the service.
Edward Perry, owner of South Shore radio station WATD-FM, has offered to provide free radio advertising to promote weekend service. Business owners want to see the trains run, he said.
Perry, Prone, and others said the commuter rail should offer a later train, to allow people who attend a show or sporting event in Boston to ride home. That could increase ridership, they said.
“Get us a train where we can go in there and see a ballgame without leaving in the seventh inning,” Prone said.
In addition, Plymouth’s tourism draw — it already gets about a million visitors a year, he said — offers a reverse market. Instead of chiefly serving suburban riders going into the city, the line could bring urbanites to Plymouth for weekend getaways.
“It’s every railroad manager’s dream to have a statistic like that,” he said.
But not every local resident hopes for weekend and holiday trains. Michael Weymouth, of Hingham, has publicly opposed bringing back weekend service on the Greenbush line, saying it costs too much per rider. The line should never have been built through historic towns, he said in an interview, even though he does not live near the train.
“It’s a taxpayer thing,” he said. “I’m just somebody that hates to see waste.”