The T hired Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad 10 years ago to run its trains, not fill them with riders — and unfortunately, that’s all it got. Over the decade that MBCR has held the contract to operate the sprawling commuter rail system, the service itself has improved, albeit with plenty of hiccups. But ridership hasn’t followed. According to statistics, commuter rail ridership on the system’s 12 lines has ticked steadily downward, falling by 12.5 percent over a decade by one measure.
Now, as MBCR and another bidder, Keolis, seek a new contract, those numbers are coming under scrutiny. Assigning all the blame to MBCR would be unfair; there are plenty of other factors, including the T’s fare increases, that probably played a role in turning away potential customers. But the fundamental problem with blaming MBCR for the trend is that the operator lacks a mandate to boost ridership. If the T wants to judge the next operator based on ridership trends — and it should — it has to make recruiting new passengers an explicit part of the contractor’s job.
Under the current contract, MBCR gets the same payments if trains run full or empty. But the next deal could give the winning contractor additional payments if ridership rises — or impose penalties if it falls. Given a financial reason to drum up ridership, the commuter-rail contractor could, for instance, run ads for its services, or launch direct marketing campaigns to potential riders who live near stations. A savvy contractor could also find more creative ways to boost ridership, such as partnering with real-estate developers to create demand for the service with new housing near stations.
Boosting ridership would be good for the T, which would collect more fare revenue, and advance the state’s broader transportation and environmental goals. The more commuters take the train, the fewer are clogging roads. The T’s main reason for outsourcing the commuter rail operation to a private firm has been to save money. But to make the most of its partnership, the T should also give the next operator, whoever it is, a mandate for growth and the tools to achieve it.