On Monday February 1, 2016, MBTA and massDOT held the Worcester version of the continuing public hearings regarding the potential fare increases and the proposed new commuter rail schedules. The MBTA tweeted out a picture of the hearing, and my bald spot made a cameo appearance:
If you really want my long winded observations and thoughts, click on the read more:
1. No big surprises or new information. I was able to glean a few nuggets, but the presentations highlighted the already published information.
2. So what were the interesting nuggets?
- The 'bullet' trains are aimed at the 'millennial' demographic, or at least a demographic that has a flexible or shifted work schedule more towards later work times - later start times and later end times for their workday. I didn't engage in a long conversation or debate about this, but it sounded like a somewhat conscious decision to have the bullet train operate at the later ends of the rush hour 'boxes.'
- The intent is to make up the new 'bullet' trains with a short three-coach consist for the initial pilot run (few months?). This is a new concept, and will be the shortest set in use on the system. In fact, the MBTA needs to test such a short set because up until now, the minimum number of coaches allowed on a train set has been four. This is due to the need to have enough braking force on the trains - too few coaches, and there just isn't enough aggregate surface area between the brakes and the wheels to have enough stopping power. Therefore the need for testing the new three-coach train sets.
- The new draft schedule does eliminate 'interlining' of train sets for the Framingham-Worcester line. There will be eight sets of equipment that will remain dedicated to the line for the entire service day, and those eight sets will be used to operate all of the scheduled trains. More on this topic in future blog posts.
3. There were quite a few senior managers from the MBTA and massDOT - this was not just a hearing where they send only a junior PR guy out to collect some feedback. I was impressed with the number of senior managers and their willingness to engage in a conversation. As I've stated before, this method of engaging the public is what should have been the plan all along when they first started the process of rebuilding the schedules, but at least we're on the right track now.
4. The staff has the unenviable task of balancing competing interests which can't be balanced when rebuilding the new schedule. These include, in no particular order:
- Legacy service at certain stations and certain times. Proposing to change or eliminate long-standing service options results in push back from the public and the politicians, which therefore limits the ability to make some changes that would make the most sense from an overall point of view. That should also serve as a cautionary tale: once you implement something, it may become impossible to remove it.
- Limited equipment and infrastructure. There are only a certain number of train sets available, and the limitations of the physical track system will be the same on May 23 as they are today. We will benefit from the rail replacement and destressing projects, but those improvements will primarily mitigate delays - not increase capacity.
- Limited labor pool. Even if you want to reject this limitation and say it can be solved by hiring unlimited staff with an unlimited budget (which is silly), you are still constrained by issues such as crews needing to start and end their days at the same station (can't have a crew start in Worcester and end in Providence). And with the additional realistic constraints of budget and overall labor force size, crew scheduling becomes another variable that needs to be addressed.
- Attempting to balance transit times, departure / arrival times, and crowding issues on the new schedule means that tough compromises have to be made that won't satisfy everyone.
- There is no way to make everyone happy. Unless there was unlimited equipment and a dedicated track to Boston from each station, the schedule creation process will always result in some people not getting the service they want.
5. Funny story: If you recall, in my October 14, 2015 blog post, I used some incomplete information to speculate about what the draft schedule would look like. Many of my guesses were wrong, but some weren't too far off. A couple of the massDOT / MBTA managers related to me that as they were working on the draft schedule back then, they noticed my blog post and had it up on their computer screens while they continued to edit the draft schedules. They debated whether to correct my inaccurate guesses by just sending me the draft schedule! The issue became moot because I was able to get a copy of the real draft schedule just a few days later and update my blog with the accurate draft schedule. I was surprised to hear my blog got such attention!
So what happened at the Worcester hearing on Monday?
By my rough count, there were about 30 general public attendees, plus 15 MBTA / massDOT staff, plus 6 reporters. There was at least one Keoils employee, but she sat off to the side and did not appear to interact with the MBTA / massDOT staff. People entering the hearing were asked to provide their name and e-mail address (obviously not required), and if they wanted to speak they were given a numbered ticket.
The only handout provided by the MBTA was the tables describing the fare increase options, similar to this document.
Jim Kersten (massDOT Public Relations) started off the presentations with introductions. He served as 'moderator' for the evening.
Brian Shortsleeve, MBTA Chief Administrator, walked through a brief PowerPoint outlining the fare increase and the options.
Corey Lynch, 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.
He empathized that this was the first time that the Commuter Rail schedules were rebuilt from the ground up - in the past, slight modifications have been made, but for most lines, there has never been a wholesale re-invention of the service schedule.
[Note that actually the Framingham-Worcester line got an 'almost' ground-up schedule rebuild when they completed the new Yawkey station (with platforms on both tracks). The draft schedules published at that time created a LOT of public feedback, and the schedules were heavily changed before being implemented. Also, the Framingham-Worcester line schedules have been modified not insignificantly at various other points over the past ~15 years. But other lines have NOT had their schedules changed as much, so the 'complete rebuild' concept is more applicable to lines other than Framingham-Worcester. For example, if you compare the 2010 and 2015 Framingham-Worcester schedules, there are some significant differences, including the addition of new express trains in that period. But if you compare the 2010 and 2015 Franklin line schedules, they are almost exactly the same (for rush hour service).]
Another point Mr. Lynch stressed was the move away from interlining trains (as I noted in my observation #2 above) with a somewhat detailed discussion (using slide 3 from the this PowerPoint) about how interlining can be problematic for overall service.
Mr. Kersten then invited Representative Hannah Kane (R- Shrewsbury) to speak briefly. As a member of the Joint Committee on Transportation, Ms. Kane stressed that she was present to listen and wanted to hear what we had to say.
By my count, about 13 members of the general public spoke. Although some people asked questions, the format of the hearing did not invite a dialog, so some questions were left unanswered. Mr. Kersten stressed that if people had particular questions, they could speak to staff members individually after the meeting.
My impression was that most people were not extremely upset about the schedule changes. And opinion was certainly split about the bullet train (and the scheduled times for it) - but probably leaning in favor of it.
Here are some of the statements that various members of the public made:
Unknown: "Fare increase is too much of an ask without significant improvements in service."
Cynthia: "MBTA is just one cog in the whole system - government needs to take more holistic approach to transportation"
Paula: "Quality of commuter rail stations is terrible - not safe. Yawkey is well lit - people can watch you get attacked as they drive by on the Pike and wave." "Conductors are great - handle difficult situations well." "Ride is unreliable - never know what will happen." "Service has to get better before rate increase."
Thomas: "We ride the worst trains on the worst line on the worst system in the U.S." "My 4th fare increase hearing in 10 years and nothing ever gets better." "A few years ago, a couple met on the commuter train and got married on the train. Now, because of the poor service, EVEN THEY don't take the train."
Helga: "Get rid of the bullet and bring back the 6:05 AM express [P582 on current schedule]."
Pete: "My experience is 95% on time. New schedule has more service at better times. Bullet train isn't perfect, but I like proposed changes."
Jason: "Not perfect, but best option for commuting. Speaking on behalf of a group of about 12 Back Bay riders, we support the new schedule. The late AM bullet train isn't ideal, but the late evening bullet train is a good option." "I'd rather pay 5% fare increase now than keep deferring maintenance and pay a larger increase later."
Susanne: "Monthly pass holders subsidize the other commuters who don't have their fares collected. Fare collection isn't fair." "Staff on trains are great." "Need to figure out a way to open more doors to improve boarding and deboarding process."
Unknown: "Bullet trains are good. Fees are imbalanced to distant ridership."
I spoke third, and divided my points into two topics:
Fare increase: It is unfair for MBTA riders to shoulder burden of a fare increase while Governor Baker claims to have a no tax increase and no fee increase policy in place. Also, the MBTA's legal interpretation that a 'pass' is different than a 'fare' and therefore the price of a 'pass' is unconstrained by the legislative limitation on MBTA price increases is ludicrous and a joke.
Schedule changes: The bullet train is a waste of equipment and doesn't fairly distribute service to the broadest ridership population. It only saves ~10 minutes off of a 'regular' express train, and that isn't worth it to remove service for passengers between Grafton and Framingham. Also the times of the bullet train are not ideal and not where the most advantage could be gained by them.
The next meeting is scheduled for Natick on Wednesday February 3, and it will be focused on the Commuter Rail schedule changes only (no discussion of fare increases). I would assume that means that there won't be a presentation on the fare increases. People will certainly be able to say anything they want during the public comment portion, and it will be interesting to see if the fare increases get much mention. I anticipate a much more contentious and passionate crowd at the Natick meeting - primarily focused on proposed removal of service to West Natick from the 5:00 PM outbound express train. Should be interesting!