The reason that there were no changes implemented on 11/21 were noted in this blog post, but I'll repeat them here since they haven't changed and are still true:
1) Over the next few months there will be major changes to the infrastructure of the line which will require / enable major changes for the May 2017 schedule. These are primarily the introduction of the station stops at Boston Landing and the addition of the second track through Beacon Park. So making major changes now - only to have to make major changes again in May 2017 - is less than ideal.
2) The level of interest, possible changes, and number of stakeholders warrants a more deliberate and public process than just implementing changes decided upon by MBTA planners and management. The "Worcester Line Working Group" is the first step of that process.
The Worcester Line Working Group continues to meet - our sixth meeting is coming up this week - and we're making good progress on a number of initiatives:
1) Developing & reviewing potential alternative schedules for the May 2017 schedule change;
2) Narrowing down those alternates to a handful of potential schedules that could be presented for public comment;
3) Developing a schedule for a public comment period (if needed) to review proposed schedule changes;
4) Hearing about shorter term strategies available to reduce the present-day delays & problems; and
5) Hearing about longer term ideas for achieving better schedules.
Once we get to a point where there is something to share, I'll be publishing it here. Stay tuned and subscribe for updates.
The main point of this blog post is to highlight two thoughts I have regarding the 11/21/16 schedule. I've made these points in previous blog posts and on Twitter, but they are important to note.
1) Severe weather trains: Many people have expressed dismay at the thought that Keolis will implement the 'severe weather' service frequently and without adequate notice. This is simply not true. The rationale behind the 'severe weather' service schedule is to have a pre-planned schedule available in the rare case that service should be curtailed. I can recall MANY times when rush hour trains were almost completely empty on days of very heavy snowfall - these are the days where the 'severe weather' service is designed to be implemented. Concerns of overcrowding are therefore unfounded - if the 'severe weather' service is being implemented, it is likely that most schools are being cancelled and many commuters will not be going to work anyway. The inconvenience of the reduced level of service when the 'severe weather' service is implemented will be far outweighed by the inconvenience of a severe storm. There are, therefore, two goals being achieved: 1) less trains are needed since there will be less ridership; and 2) less trains makes the schedule more reliable by allowing for more resiliency and less strain on the equipment fleet. In addition, having less trains operating in severe weather helps to preserve service when the weather gets BETTER - there is less of a risk of a substantial amount of equipment becoming disabled in the severe weather and preventing normal service from being restored after the storm.
It also should be noted that a version of this 'severe weather' schedule existed during the winter of 2015-2016 and it was NEVER activated. Granted it was a mild winter, but this should reinforce the idea that the 'severe weather' will be just that - SEVERE weather service. Some people have asked for clear and definitive guidelines regarding what the definition of 'severe' weather is - and I think it is correct that the MBTA & Keolis are reluctant to define it. There are too many variables across too large of a geography to expect a simple definition. Furthermore, offering a hard and fast definition will lead to second guessing and complaints about the definition ("Why are you implementing the severe weather service? There isn't 12 inches of snow in MY backyard!").
Finally, the pre-planned 'severe weather' schedule is more of a communication tool than a change in the policy regarding service. There have been many examples in the past where some trains would be cancelled due to severe weather - but without a pre-planned 'severe weather' schedule, the cancellations were communicated on an individual train-by-train basis. This new 'severe weather' schedule offers a consistent & clear communication method for letting us know what trains will be cancelled. We've wanted better communications - this is an example of it.
2) The departure times of certain evening trains at interim stations are not accurate on the new 11/21 schedule. Huh? What does that mean?
In July 2016, the schedules were modified for some trains to add time to the overall duration of those trips. However, instead of changing the entire schedule, the added duration was just added to the final destination. These July changes are maintained in the 11/21 schedule. An example illustrates this fact:
5/23/16 schedule: P523 departs Boston 5:40 PM, departs Grafton 6:46 PM, arrives Worcester 7:00 PM.
July 2016 & 11/21/16 schedule: P523 departs Boston 5:40 PM, departs Grafton 6:46 PM, arrives Worcester 7:10 PM.
There is nothing that has changed to make the trip from Grafton to Worcester take 10 more minutes. The modification is that the OVERALL time that P523 takes to get from Boston to Worcester is now 10 minutes longer than it was on the 5/23/16 schedule. This longer duration represents an acknowledgment that the modeling used to develop the 5/23 schedules was overly aggressive and optimistic. The 7:10 PM time is a more realistic arrival time at Worcester given the actual performance of the train since 5/23.
When the July modifications were implemented, the MBTA did NOT remodel the entire trip of P523 (and other trains affected by the changes in duration) to change the times at the 'interim' stations between the originating station and the train's final destination. On-time performance is only officially measured at the final destination, so the times at interim stations are not needed to measure on-time performance.
Another fact needed to understand this topic is that the time noted on any train schedule for any station (except the final destination) is the DEPARTURE time of a train. Trains are not supposed to depart from any station until the time shown so that passengers can get to the station and board the train before it departs. This is also why some times at some station stops have an "L" on the schedule for "trains may leave ahead of schedule."
Back to our example - Grafton is still shown as a 6:46 PM departure time on the 11/21 schedule. This is no longer accurate - the departure time from Grafton will be somewhere between 6:46 PM and 6:56 PM (and probably closer to 6:56 PM). But passengers arriving at Grafton for the 6:46 PM departure time will never be too late for the train - it will never leave earlier than that time. This is the same situation for all stations stops for P523 - the times for all station departures between Back Bay and Grafton are not accurate.
From a railroad operations point-of-view, having passengers arrive early to board a train that may be departing a few minutes later than what is shown on the schedule is conceptually acceptable, since it won't result in passengers being left behind. This is part of the reason the times shown on the revised 11/21/16 schedule have not changed - the trains now have the flexibility to leave from the interim stations as early as the time shown on the schedule, even if they probably won't.
The important takeaway for commuters is that it is now simply impossible to know precisely WHEN a train (that had its duration modified in July) is actually supposed to ARRIVE or DEPART from station stops between the originating station and the train's final destination. The trains affected by this (along with the overall duration change) are:
P522 (+10 minutes)
P588 (+10 minutes)
P526 (+5 minutes)
P517 (+5 minutes)
P519 (+7 minutes)
P521 (+7 minutes)
P593 (+7 minutes)
P523 (+10 minutes)
P525 (+5 minutes)
Simply put, if you are on one of the trains listed above and are getting off at a station BEFORE the final destination, your train is not officially late until the amount of time listed above is ADDED to the time shown in the schedule.
For example, the schedule for P521 shows West Natick at 5:37 PM. P521 may depart from West Natick as late as 5:44 PM and still be operating "on time."
Note that this issue also affects the predictions made by 'apps.' The real-time data feed from the MBTA does not include any specific information about 'lateness.' The data feed includes information about the predicted departure time for each train at each station, but the schedule that the apps use is the same schedule that is printed for us. Any 'lateness' displayed by an app or website is a comparison between those two values - by the actual app.
For our example of P521 at West Natick, an app will be comparing the predicted departure time in the feed with 5:37 PM as printed in the schedule. If the predicted departure time in the data feed is 5:42 PM, the app may report the train as 5 minutes late, regardless of the fact that the train may actually be 'on-time' with regards to overall on-time performance.
This is a confusing and highly technical issue. Passengers depend on schedules for planning their lives, and having the trains with the majority of commuters during the evening commute performing to an unpublished schedule for most of their station stops is inconvenient and misleading to the customers. At the Worcester Working Group meetings, I have advocated for the remodeling of the entire schedules for those trains and the publication of revised schedules that show accurate times for the interim station stops. In fairness to the MBTA & Keolis, their attention has been on developing new schedules for the May 2017 schedule change - and each alternative we ask for at the Working Group meetings requires a fair bit of modeling and planning to be able to be discussed. But I do believe that fixing the 11/21/16 schedule is important - we're going to have it for 6 months, and it will be frustrating to everyone when it appears trains are continually late due to those inaccurate interim station stop times.