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40 Percent of Trains Were Late During Storms; Commuter Rail Operator Vows Improvements

The company contracted to run the MBTA's commuter rail system says it has already come up with an improvement plan to correct the problems experienced during storms this winter, when 40 percent of the trains were late.

The Newburyport commuter rail line tried the patience of Hamilton and Wenham commuters in January and part of February.

In January more than 40 percent of the line's commuter trains were late. During the same period a year ago, less than 12 percent of the line's trains were late.

A Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. spokesman said stormy weather hurt the line's ontime performance. Frozen switches and brakes, an aging fleet and issues with the Beverly drawbridge contributed to the lateness, said Tom Halkin of Mills & Company, a public relations company contracted by MBCR.

The MBCR operates the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's commuter rail service.

Changes to the Newburyport line are on the way, according to Halkin, including repairs to the Beverly drawbridge over the Danvers River and a reduced schedule during major storms.

Here's an interview with Tom Halkin of Mills & Company.

What was the on-time performance for the Newburyport and Rockport lines in January? How does this compare to previous years and to other months during this winter?

The system-wide (on-time performance) for January 2011 was 72 percent. (On-time performance) for the Newburyport and Rockport Line in January was 59 percent.

Last January system-wide (on-time performance) was 85 percent and the Newburyport and Rockport (on-time performance) was 87.5 percent.

What were the problems? Why?

45 percent of all delays in January were directly related to weather. The impact of running service in harsh winter conditions also took a toll on an aging fleet (most of the locomotive and coaches in the fleet are 20+ years old) and old infrastructure. The main issues were frozen switches (ice stuck in the switch prevents it from closing – it has to be cleared manually and each new passing train that kicks snow up/drops ice from the undercarriage and can pack it right back in); signal/gate-crossing malfunctions (caused by excessive road salting); frozen brakes; frozen air-hoses; melting snow shorting out engine circuits on both traction motors (drives the train) and HEP motors (heat, lights, etc.)

On the Newburyport/Rockport line, continued issues with the Beverly drawbridge also compounded the delays.

How does a reduced or restricted schedule during major storms help MBCR in getting the trains to run on time?

MBCR has historically experienced a 40 percent reduction in ridership levels during snow emergencies (people take the day off; work from home, etc.

A “Snow Emergency Schedule” would ensure reliability, reduce levels of disruption to customers, protect rolling stock from storm-related damage and provide spare equipment by offering it to adjust levels of service during storms.

If you are running fewer trains on certain days because of major storms, will you run more cars on those trains?

MBCR proposed a snow emergency schedule that would go into effect if the governor declared a snow emergency. Details are still being worked out in conjunction with the MBTA. Nothing is approved yet.

Problems on the Newburyport/Rockport line often seem to be related to the Beverly drawbridge. What can or is being done to reduce the problems at that spot, as they impact the rest of the line all the way to Boston?

The bridge was built in 1887, and many of the original components are still intact. Maritime law dictates that ocean-going traffic gets the right-of-way and the bridge must open when a watercraft approaches.

The MBTA approved $1.6 million to perform a temporary fix of the bridge by installing a new hydraulic system. Design work is just about complete, and the repair is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2011.

The T is also developing plans to completely replace the bridge, and plan to put that project out to bid in 2012.

How do you plan to get the word out on those days when the commuter rail is going to use a reduced schedule?

Once a “Snow Emergency Schedule” is adopted it will be posted at every station, on MBTA.com and MBCR.net, and when a snow emergency is declared it will be distributed through the T’s and MBCR’s e-mail systems.

Sign boards on the platform are frequently wrong and email alerts are also rarely accurate. What are you doing to improve performance and communication?

These are two separate issues:

The platform signboards are part of the Passenger Train Information System (PTIS). PTIS is an automated, on-board computer system that generates automated messages inside the coaches and also links real-time information to LED monitors at stations. However, PTIS is just over a year old, and while it has been fully implemented at all stations on the south side of the system (out of South Station), it is still being rolled-out on the north side.

Until recently all Internet and mobile communications were controlled by the MBTA. Because of the many issues with this system during the snowstorms of January and early February, the MBTA will transfer commuter rail-related communications to the MBCR – the transfer should be completed by mid-March.

MBCR is also aggressively working on implementing a new, additional system for real-time information that will allow all passengers to know where their train is at all times.

Erica Foster March 02, 2011 at 04:09 AM
Isn't that the truth! Terry thanks for doing the story! I was just stuck at the Grafton platform while the marquee sign flashed "train to Boston stopped on tracks. stand by" no further information provided, no updates, blah blah blah.... It's not just up in the northern lines... it is EVERYWHERE!!!

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