Commuter rail delays frustrate riders

(The following article by Emily Shartin was posted on the Boston Globe website on February 5.)

BOSTON -- Frustrated residents of the western suburbs are criticizing the commuter rail service following delays last week that left some passengers waiting an hour in the cold for their morning trains to Boston.

Commuter rail officials blame the delays last Tuesday on brake failures that led to the cancellation of two trains from Worcester to Boston. But passengers, who say they received little or no explanation for the holdup, say it is another example of the commuter line's routinely unreliable but increasingly expensive service, which some say they cannot trust to deliver them to work on time.

''What can you say?" said John Campbell, who takes the train from Auburndale station in Newton to his job at the Hancock Tower in Boston. ''It's very frustrating."

Campbell, who said he waited an hour for his train that morning, was one of a handful of fed-up riders of the Framingham-Worcester line who contacted the Globe last week. Short of ensuring that the trains always run on schedule, the commuter rail, he and others said, should at least notify customers of delays so they can decide whether to wait or find other ways to get to work.

''Almost as important is to let people know what's actually going on," Campbell said.

''That's sort of like Customer Service 101," agreed Joel Werkema, an Ashland resident who works downtown and also was inconvenienced by last week's problems.

Tara Frier, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, which operates the commuter rail, said the agency is working out glitches in an electronic messaging system, which is supposed to display information about delays at each station. There generally is no system for making verbal announcements at the stations, she said.

Both of last week's canceled trains had cars with brake problems, Frier said. Normally, mechanics would be able to remove the faulty cars and reattach the train, but the equipment needed for that procedure was at the other end of the line in Boston, she said.

Delays are sometimes caused by other smaller mechanical problems, Frier said, which have cropped up on all of the region's commuter rails this winter. But unlike some other rails, the Framingham-Worcester line also is used to ship freight, which can lead to delays in passenger service.

Despite estimates that it runs on schedule 93 percent of the time, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad recently devised a plan to repair its aging fleet, which it officially inherited last summer from the previous operator, Amtrak.

''We acknowledge we have some improvements to make," Frier said.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which controls scheduling and fares and owns much of the commuter rail infrastructure, did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Mike Murphy, a software programmer who catches the train at Auburndale, said he could take the Green Line trolley to work, but he noted that the travel time is longer than the commuter rail. Buses are also an option, he said, but traffic on the Mass. Pike can often cause delays.

Werkema, who commutes to Boston with his wife, Rachel, said the proximity of the commuter rail was a reason the couple chose to live in Ashland. Rachel Deyette Werkema said there are days when she considers driving to work -- a time-consuming and costly option given turnpike tolls and parking -- and she is concerned the commuter rail is driving away riders with its lack of reliability. Although her morning train is supposed to arrive in Boston at about 8:20 a.m., she said she feels uncomfortable scheduling a 9 a.m. meeting.

The MBTA implemented a fare hike at the start of the year, resulting in increases of nearly $40 a month for regular commuter rail passengers. According to the T's ''Customer Bill of Rights," passengers can be reimbursed for their ride if service is more than 30 minutes late.

Alan Altshuler, a former state transportation secretary and now professor of urban policy and planning at Harvard University, said mass transit systems have become more reliable but are still costly to operate, especially in winter.

''If you want to maintain . . . reliability, it's expensive," Altshuler said.

Thursday, February 5, 2004

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