More details after the "read more."
And to think I just started a blog to share information about cancellations and delays...
The scheduling of the meeting is also what drove me to finally publish the petition for a better morning schedule (see this blog post). I wanted all the politicians to have the petition before the meeting.
The meeting lasted about 2 hours and was very productive. After introductions and a very kind acknowledgement by Lt. Governor Polito of my work on the proposed schedule and the petition, the meeting began with a discussion by the MBTA staff regarding the obstacles and issues preventing ideal scheduling & schedule performance - and what is being done about those issues. Frequent readers of this blog are familiar with most of these issues:
- Single track from CP 3 to CP 4 along the former Beacon Park freight yard in Allston;
- New Boston Landing station (and construction associated with it);
- Rail destressing & tie replacement projects;
- Single track at Worcester Station;
- Concord Street grade crossing (see this recent blog post); and
- Operational constraints such as block spacing & the signal system.
The meeting then shifted to a discussion regarding the potential upcoming schedule changes.
As noted in previous blog posts, and as Mr. Ray discussed at the FMCB meeting on Monday 9/26/16, there are changes being incorporated into the next round of schedules which will be implemented in November (for most lines). During August & September, while developing the November schedule changes for the Framingham-Worcester line, the MBTA and Keolis were well aware of my proposed schedule (and the associated petition) for the morning commute. But although they considered my proposed schedule, the proposed schedule that they finalized for management approval did NOT include my proposed changes, and actually did not propose major changes to any morning peak hour trains. It did include some proposed changes to the evening outbound commute that would have changed the commute for some passengers.
MBTA management reviewed the proposed November schedule changes, and after considering the factors involved, decided to NOT implement any major changes to the current schedule for the Framingham-Worcester line in November 2016. The May 2016 schedule (with the modifications announced in July) will remain in effect until May 2017. A new schedule document will be issued in November 2016 for the Framingham-Worcester line, but the only major change will be the designation of "severe weather" trains which are the ones which will be cancelled in case of very severe weather.
After this topic was presented to us at the meeting, I expressed my disappointment that there will be no changes to the morning schedule and that P508 will therefore probably remain overcrowded. The counterpoints that the MBTA offered were somewhat compelling, and included 2 primary points:
1) Over the next 6 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.
We also spent some time at the meeting with an in-depth examination of both the morning rush hour inbound commute and the evening rush hour outbound commute.
The discussion for the evening commute focused on what we all agreed is the 'peak' time of the outbound rush hour, which are the trains departing South Station from about 5 PM to about 6:30 PM. Much of the discussion centered on two topics:
1) The configuration of Worcester station with a single station track PAST the storage yard (and the arrangement of switches and sidings) requires that outbound trains arrive in Worcester with no less than 30 minutes between arrivals (ideally). This 30 minute gap allows trains to be 'turned' at Worcester and either be sent to the storage yard or sent back into Boston. Without that 30 minute gap, the second arriving train is forced to wait well outside Worcester station while the first train completes its turn and clears through the switches to allow the second train to arrive.
This 30 minute interval affects the departure times from Boston - trains bound for Worcester have to have their departure times arranged to account for this arrival interval at Worcester. The current schedule (May 2016) has aggressively tried to bring that interval down to less than 30 minutes (22-23 minutes for P523, P525, and P527). That can work if everything lines up perfectly - but any delays can quickly cascade to the following trains. No schedule should be built to line-up for perfect performance with no allowance for contingencies.
We spent a few minutes discussing the long-term solution to this problem, which is the construction of a second platform at Worcester station. This project is not yet funded nor scheduled, but the interesting takeaway for me is that this is an important project that will improve the experience for ALL passengers on the line - not just Worcester-bound passengers. Reducing the Worcester arrival interval will allow for more frequent arrival intervals at ALL stations - and especially the stations from Ashland to Worcester. Perhaps this is the next topic we'll need to focus our attention on... and mobilize to get political attention on.
2) Prior to May 23, 2016, the schedule included a 'leapfrog' move (one in the morning and one in the evening). The 5:30 PM outbound express from South Station passed the 5:15 PM outbound local. This opened up the line to allow another local train to depart South Station at 5:35 PM - only 20 minutes after the 5:15 PM local. So the leapfrogging express train actually benefited BOTH distant and closer commuters.
The leapfrog move was an innovative idea, but it proved to be problematic. If there were any delays to inbound or outbound trains, the leapfrog move became unavailable and the express train was stuck behind the local train. Also, having both tracks dedicated to outbound service for a 10 mile stretch of the line (the distance between the switches available to make the leapfrog move) reduced the overall capacity of the line.
With the May 2016 schedule, this leapfrog move was removed from the schedule. With the addition of more trains (six additional trips overall) to the schedule, the leapfrog move is not possible - the second track needs to remain dedicated to inbound service to keep trains moving back to Boston. Eliminating the leapfrog move also allows for more flexibility and better overall operations on the line.
The evening commute discussion concluded with what is probably the most important issue for many of us. Keolis and the MBTA addressed something that has been a constant thorn in our side with the new May 2016 schedule - the schedule performance of P593, the 5:15 PM local train from South Station (and the resultant cascaded delay to P523, the 5:40 PM express train from South Station). When the May 2016 schedule was developed, the equipment for P593 was designated to come from inbound P522. This has never worked well - P522 frequently becomes delayed and arrives without enough time to make the turn and depart on time at 5:15 PM.
After re-examining the equipment cycle, Keolis and the MBTA modified the equipment assignments (actually effective Monday September 26). The equipment for P593 will now come from the storage yard, and the P522 equipment will be used as the equipment for P525. Implementing this change will greatly improve the on-time performance of P593 and, as a result, the on-time performance of P523.
Of course, on Friday 9/30, there were last minute equipment problems across the South Side, which required a last minute shift of the equipment assignment for P593. This created an unfortunate delay for P593, but that was unrelated to the designated (new) equipment cycle.
The takeaway from our discussion of the evening commute was (at least for me) an understanding that there are not many opportunities to improve the schedule between 5 PM and 6 PM (as long as the 'fix' for P593 actually works). There are some opportunities to improve the sequencing and scheduling of local and express trains after 6 PM.
The discussion for the morning commute began with an opportunity for me to present and explain my proposed schedule, including how it might work and what benefits it might achieve. You can read my original blog post on the proposed schedule for details regarding that.
After that, we had what turned out to be a good brainstorming session with lots of ideas and concepts being tossed out on the table and debated. We were not able to come to any definitive conclusions, but we all got an understanding of the various issues involved, which include:
1) Adequate and fair express service for stations between Worcester and Ashland;
2) Reduction of overcrowding on P508;
3) Maintaining schedules that resemble long-established train services (on the theory that passengers have developed routines which work for the trains that have been offered for 10+ years);
4) Offering schedules that allow for arrival into Boston at the most desirable times;
5) Offering scheduled departure times that accommodate school drop-off times and other morning considerations; and
6) A fair distribution of services for all stations.
Tying into the earlier discussion regarding the need to have a more deliberate process for implementing major schedule changes, the MBTA envisions the process of the Worcester Line Working Group to follow this path (although this is NOT official, and still just a concept):
1) The Worcester Line Working Group continues to meet to discuss potential schedule changes for the May 2017 schedule;
2) Once a draft schedule is negotiated within the Working Group, that schedule is released for public comment;
3) Engage the public with a comment and public hearing period;
4) Finalize the draft schedule based on the public comments; and
5) Implement the new schedule in May 2017.
The MBTA is very interested in getting the draft schedule to the public as soon as possible to start the public input process so that it won't be rushed. Having said that, it may take some time to negotiate and develop a draft schedule - so don't look for one next week. Stay tuned to this blog and I'll post updates with as much information as I can.
Obviously as a train nerd, this is pretty cool. Somehow I've achieved Railfan level one zillion to be able to be sitting around a table debating equipment usage and train schedules with people much more important than me. As I've always noted here, my goal is to improve the service for everyone on the line. I will take a neutral approach to the schedule - my goal is a fair schedule - but of course, that's my definition of 'neutral' and 'fair.'
Therefore, there is a need for advocacy. Our first meeting had a lopsided representation of interests from Wellesley - and we all acknowledged that. General Manager Shortsleeve and everyone agreed that more balance is needed for the Working Group. On Friday, after the meeting, Representative Carolyn Dykema (D - Holliston) agreed to join the Working Group and will be participating in future meetings.
What can you do? Contact your legislator and encourage them to become involved or at least offer some input to the process. And then stay tuned and when there is a public comment period, provide your comments.
As noted above, I am disappointed that we were not able to achieve change for the November 2016 schedule with the petition for a better AM schedule. But I'm not surprised. Eliminating the Heart To Hub express after only a few months of its operation is probably not possible, even with the overwhelming support of the petition. Everyone involved probably wants more data - and data from the non-vacation post-Labor Day period. So regardless of my petition, it is clear there was no plan to make any changes to the morning schedule for November 2016. Now we can be guaranteed there will be positive changes on the May 2017 schedule.
So I am encouraged - and I hope you are too - that we've opened a dialogue and started a process with attention that no other Commuter Rail line is getting. I'm guessing that the petition is part of the reason the MBTA looked to start a Working Group. As I've noted before, we're now getting a disproportionate share of improvements (although much of it is probably long overdue). I think these infrastructure improvements, along with a collaborative schedule development process, will get us to a much better place. Even if it takes a little longer than we would have hoped for.
Please subscribe to get updates when I post future updates to this blog!