On Wednesday, February 3, 2016, the MBTA and massDOT held the Natick version of the continuing public hearings regarding the proposed new commuter rail schedules. There wasn't anything big and different than the Worcester hearing, although there was a lot more vocal opposition and concern about some of the proposed changes.
Brian Benson of the MetroWest Daily News wrote a good article summarizing the meeting. He has another article from the day before outlining the position of the Natick Board of Selectmen.
As with the Worcester meeting, it was great to see senior MBTA management at the meeting. They were very willing to engage in detailed exchanges, and they seemed very open to the feedback being provided.
At the beginning of the meeting, there were only about 9 general public attendees. The actual location was somewhat difficult to find on the Walnut Hill School campus, so that may have delayed people. By the end of the evening, I estimate there were probably about 30 general public attendees. There also appeared to be about 6 MBTA / massDOT staff, 1 reporter, and 4 government representatives. There were also one or two Keoils employees, I think, but again, they did not interact much with the public.
There were no handouts provided by the MBTA. I gave out printed copies of my version of the draft Framingham-Worcester schedule.
Continued after the read more...
Ryan Coholan, the Deputy Director of Railroad Operations, presented a PowerPoint on the Goals of the Commuter Rail Schedule Initiative, which is a subset of the relevant slides from this Commuter Rail Initiative PowerPoint.
Representative David Linsky (D-Natick) spoke first and presented the concerns that had been sent to him from his constituents. This concern actually was a major focus of the evening from many speakers: The elimination of the West Natick stop from the outbound ~5 PM express. The new P521 departs South Station at 5:05 PM and runs express directly to Framingham, instead of stopping at West Natick as the current P527 (5:00 PM South Station departure) does now. Without this express service to West Natick, passengers have only the 4:35 PM (P589) local or the 5:15 PM (P591) local as options. P591 arrives at West Natick at 6:01 PM - 1 minute after most day care facilities close. And P589 is not a viable option for many people who don't have the flexibility to leave work that early. In my summaries below, I'll refer to this problem as the "5 PM express issue."
Mr. Linsky highlighted all of the common themes with the 5 PM express issue: makes day care pickups impossible, results in 30 minute change to commute times, and severely impacts the quality of life for West Natick commuters. He claimed that the West Natick stop is within the top 10% of usage on the entire commuter rail system. [I did not verify this or any claims by speakers - I'm just going to quote what people said, whether it is accurate or not.]
Mr. Linsky completed his remarks with a request that West Natick (at a minimum) and Natick Center (if possible) be added to the new ~5 PM P521 express service.
The meeting then moved into the public comment period, where approximately 18 people spoke. Towards the end of the public comment period, the meeting became a little more interactive, with some questions being asked of the staff and some answers being provided. Some people spoke a second or third time to add to the comments being discussed. There were a few interesting nuggets during this exchange, so although they were last at the meeting, I'll start with them here:
Question: Are these schedules final or will there really be changes made?
Answer: These are draft and the MBTA expects to make changes. On the North Side, the draft schedules were released in December and even without a public comment process, many comments were received. Those comments were integrated into the current draft of the North Side schedules which were re-released in January. So, as evident by the process on the North Side, there is no plan to ignore the comments. However, there are many stakeholders and competing interests, along with operational constraints. So not ALL comments and/or suggestions will be able to implemented.
Question: What is timeline for releasing final schedules? What happens between today and May 23?
Answer: No date has been determined for release of final schedules. Mr. Kersten and Mr. Coholan speculated that the new schedules may be available to be published within 3-4 weeks after the entire public comment period is closed, but that was just their speculation.
Many people commented that due to the potential for major disruption to personal routines, as much advance notice as possible would be appreciated. The MBTA representatives acknowledged that this schedule change is not like changes that have been previously rolled out and there will be more than the usual notice before the changes are implemented.
Question: Who makes final decision on schedule? MBTA or Keolis?
Answer: MBTA, and some of the decision makers are here at this meeting. Keolis implements the schedules that the MBTA arranges.
Question: When Boston Landing station is completed, will all trains stop there?
Question: When Boston Landing station is completed, will all LOCAL trains stop there?
Question: When Boston Landing station is completed, what trains will stop there?
Answer: Has not been determined / finalized yet. But the center platform arrangement of the station with the ability to service trains on both tracks at the same time will allow for better scheduling and operational flexibility than other stations (such as the Newtons).
Question: What is schedule for Boston Landing station construction / station opening?
Answer: 18 month construction schedule, and all indications are that it is on schedule.
Returning to the comments made by the general public, I'll summarize some of the points people made. Note that I'm transcribing the comments to the best of my ability, and I'm not vouching for the accuracy of any the claims made. If I misrepresent something you said, let me know and I'll immediately edit it.
Sarah Lundell: Sarah started a change.org petition for the "5 PM express issue." It has over 302 supporters as of the day of the meeting. "I'm a 10 year plus rider and the [5 PM express issue] is a big deal."
Holli Andews, Director of Framingham Downtown Renaissance asked about the takeover of the parking in Framingham by the MWRTA (MetroWest Regional Transit Authority). The MBTA representatives had no information but promised to follow up with Holli. [I've never heard of this issue and can't find any news about it.]
Greg: West Natick passenger - "Tremendous negative impact of [5 PM express issue]."
Steve, Needham Transportation Committee: Very concerned with removal of service to Ruggles station for Needham line trains.
Susan: "Doesn't seem fair to have rates raised and no good service." "Would like to see better AM express service."
Andy: [5 PM express issue.]
Aniket: "Happy with 4:25 PM express to Natick / West Natick. Hope it stays." "Goal of maximizing arrival times, which is stated on the PowerPoint, has not been met." "Reducing overcrowding on the 5 PM express by removing West Natick station solves a small problem by creating an ever bigger problem." [I bolded this one because I think it is a spot-on analysis.]
Maryanne: "Changes to P508 may actually make overcrowding issues worse, since removing Naticks from P508 may push those passengers to board at Framingham." "I suspect with Natick and West Natick combined, the town of Natick has the highest ridership on the line." "West Natick has a large neighborhood where people walk to the train."
Sean, speaking on behalf of Mathworks employees who use the train for a reverse commute: "Elimination of two afternoon inbound trains is a big problem for reverse commuters."
Jason: "Previously boarded at Wellesley Square, but bought a home near West Natick to take advantage of schedule." "Schedule changes benefit Worcester passengers but they should expect long commutes because they live so far from the city." "[5 PM express issue] completely ruins performance at work."
Josh Ostroff, the Partnerships Director for Transportation for Massachusetts, and a member of the Natick Board of Selectmen: "We're fighting over crumbs. System is not worthy of the region. Need to look larger and talk about larger issues, such as South Station expansion." "Thanks to MBTA staff for doing the best they can given constraints."
Mr. Ostroff read a letter that the Natick Board of Selectmen will send to the MBTA. The letter highlighted the 5 PM express issue, and requested consideration for as much service as possible for both Natick Center and West Natick stations. The letter also talked about the need for more parking at the West Natick station.
Vincent: "40 minute gap between 7:21 AM and 8:00 AM at Natick Center for inbound service - too long."
Mary: "New Natick resident this summer." "Looked at schedule before closing on home, changes to schedule are a problem." "Agree that there is a problem with removal of Ruggles stations from Needham and Providence line trains."
Jessica: "Live in Natick but take train from Wellesley Square in order to get parking." "P512 and P510 are currently good options - new P584 is not a good option since it is too early for those with family obligations. Not enough service on new schedule between 8 AM and 9 AM."
Ryan: [5 PM express issue.]
Unknown, 20 year rider: [5 PM express issue.]
2 people commented about the lack of notification for the schedule changes and the meetings. Many fellow riders are unaware of upcoming changes. People are being cut out of the public comment process.
Someone (general public audience member) pulled up the MBTA Blue Book during the meeting and asserted that according to their reading of the statistics, Framingham is the 10th busiest station, West Natick is 12th and Natick Center is 15th. If West Natick and Natick Center ridership figures are combined, the only larger station than that is Providence.
I spoke somewhere in the middle of the public comment period and made two points:
1) I ride from Framingham, which has adequate service due to the confluence of the express and local trains, so I have no complaints about service changes at Framingham.
2) I related the story of riding the train all the way to Worcester for the Worcester public hearing, and I commented that it is a really long ride, even on the express train. So for every change to service east of Framingham, there is a corresponding effect west of Framingham, and there has to be some element of equity in the schedule.
I had a great opportunity to speak with many people after the meeting. Thanks for the chance to chat!
Don't forget to send your written comments to the MBTA before Friday, as detailed in this blog post.