Does anyone really care who runs Boston’s commuter trains so long as they’re fast and affordable? Let me speak for the suburbs: No, we don’t.
We don’t care if the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. gets its contract renewed next June, or if the job goes to Keolis, the competing bidder from France. We just want Boston to have commuter-train service that’s compatible with suburban families’ actual needs, in terms of cost, schedule, and ease of use. Right now, we don’t.
Hopkinton, where I live, is 26.2 miles from the heart of the city, as every runner knows. Realtors around here talk up the ease of the commute to the city, and technically, they’re right. We can walk to the Ashland station, bike to the one in Southborough, or drive to either and take advantage of usually ample parking.
Yet in the past six months, I’ve taken the train into Boston just once. Some of my neighbors never use it all. The service is too much like convenience-store coffee: promising, but ultimately disappointing. It takes too long and costs too much.
Fewer people ride Boston’s commuter trains now than 10 years ago, when gasoline cost less than $2 a gallon. Even with the addition of Wi-Fi, ridership has declined 12.5 percent, while most everywhere else in the country, it’s gone up: 83 percent in San Francisco, 43 percent in Baltimore, 40 percent in D.C.
Personally, I keep hoping the MBTA will give me a reason to ride its trains into Boston. My kids and I would love to spend more time in the city, enjoying its ambience and browsing its wares. But to sit on the waterfront’s edge and watch the moon rise over the harbor after dinner at the Barking Crab is a rare treat because it’s such a hassle and expense to get there.
For my family of five to get from Ashland to South Station for dinner takes 66 minutes and $70 round trip — even with the youngest riding free. And getting to other desirable places in Boston? For those of us who make up the “greater” in “Greater Boston,” there’s no such thing as rapid transit.
I wanted to take public transportation to get to the Brattle Theatre last week because every time I drive to Cambridge I swear I’m never going there again. I checked the MBTA’s Trip Planner: About $90 round-trip, travel time of 96 minutes each way. So I drove, adding to the congestion on the Pike, and paid $15 to park in a garage. (For the record, I’m never going to Cambridge again.)
True, the commuter-rail system exists not to take me to the theatre, but to pluck workers from the suburbs and deposit them into downtown office buildings five days a week. But if the suburbs are in steep decline, as Leigh Gallagher posits in her book “The End of the Suburbs,” the off-hour fares may be the only ones remaining when the next management contract expires.
Moreover, the comings and goings of suburbanites matter to the overall health and vibrancy of a city. The MBTA may not care how fast and cheaply a family in Billerica can get to the Children’s Museum, but the restaurants and shops on Congress Street do. Boston needs commuter trains that work not just for office workers and single fares; we need the T to be efficient for two and more, too.
Unfortunately, Boston remains tethered to the past in ways both good and bad, and a transit system tangled with multiple unions and ancient equipment will keep on running the little trains that couldn’t — until the private sector can have a fair go at it, with real profit and real power to manage the system. Right now, whoever operates our commuter trains cannot change the fares, the employees, or the schedules; they have little power to make the trains more user-friendly, only to keep them in motion.
Which is why it doesn’t really matter who runs the trains, or whether they’re new or old, or if there’s development by the stations, or even if they occasionally run late.
That train — the one in which the commuter train makes a real and substantive difference in suburban life — has long left the station.
Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. She can be reached at Jennifer@jennifergraham.com.