Editorial: Don’t stop the non-stop between Worcester and Boston

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Is it time for a heart-to-heart about the HeartToHub?

We don’t think so, but an engineer who lives in Ashland and rides the MBTA’s Framingham/Worcester Line thinks otherwise.

David Perry on Wednesday delivered an impressively detailed letter and petition to Gov. Charlie Baker. He calls for the elimination of the HeartToHub service in favor of added express trains that would serve more riders, at more convenient times, at more stations between Worcester and Boston.

Union Station

Sun Staff / Worcester Sun

HeartToHub is on track from Union Station, but is it meeting its goals?

HeartToHub is the non-stop train service that debuted in May, promoted by politicians and carrying the hope and expectation that it would be a strong step toward a future of smoother, environmentally friendly public transportation serving Worcester.

Though less than perfect — and likely deserving of schedule adjustments once a year has gone by — the service still serves, at least symbolically, as that strong first step toward a better commuter future.

It deserves improvement and support, from commuters as well as leaders.

Non-stop service to and from Boston was hard-won by Worcester. The same goes for the much fuller train schedule the city enjoys now compared with years ago. HeartToHub should be scrutinized and built upon, kept on course with officials’ and riders’ hopes for the long haul.

It certainly should not be dismantled.

That’s not to say we don’t admire the work of the petitioner, who boards at the station in Framingham. And we sympathize with the plight of passengers needing to get to work or appointments on time whose stations are bypassed by Worcester’s HeartToHub runs, or whose train timetables are impacted by the twice-daily non-stop (one inbound train in the morning, another back to Union Station at night).

But no change to a large, complex, interdependent system such as the MBTA is going to satisfy everyone. Further, logistical limitations of the Framingham/Worcester Line will ease once planned upgrades are completed.

Union Station

Wikimedia Commons

Union Station

The big picture matters here most. In a future congested with commuters, HeartToHub lays key track toward more use of mass transit and less reliance on cars. Further, once an improvement such as HeartToHub takes hold, Worcester stands to enjoy the attendant benefits that accrue to cities well-served by transportation options.

Perry interviewed passengers, studied the MBTA network, and devised an imaginary new timetable for the Framingham/Worcester Line he says would make more sense. It’s all in the package he delivered to the governor, and it’s neat-looking and realistic down to the rows of tiny numbers.

And he has credentials, as a blogger on the commuter rail system; a member of a social media group that monitors train service and informs passengers of any problems in real time (the group formed in response to the delays and service suspensions that plagued commuters in the stormy winter of 2014-15); and is a user of the system for 15 years, according to MassLive.

Perry collected 559 signatures for the petition he gave the governor.

He, and the people who signed, are correct that Worcester’s fastest train to Boston has, in its first four months, gotten off to a slower start than wished for. We can see it in the empty seats. There’s a reason for this, of course. It’s all in the tiny numbers of the actual timetable.

If HeartToHub is inconveniencing commuters down the line, it is also inconvenient for many Worcesterites who would like to get to work on time.

The schedule puts the non-stop trains at the latter end of the morning and evening commutes, surely the primary reason ridership has been relatively low.

Meanwhile, some slower trains from Worcester to Boston — notably the 508 express, which leaves Union Station at 7 a.m. and skips seven of the 13 stops the hour-later non-stop skips — can be packed.

The 508, Perry says in a blog post given to the governor, “is one of the most overcrowded trains in the entire commuter rail system.”

Perry explains the schedule constraints in his letter to the governor: “The ‘Heart to Hub’ super express was an innovative idea, but its usefulness is constrained by the logistical and infrastructure limitations of the 2-track Framingham-Worcester line. Scheduling it at a time when it would have offered the most benefit for Worcester commuters (i.e. departing Worcester at 7 AM) would have decimated the schedule for passengers boarding at other stations since it requires a clear track for its transit to Boston. It is therefore relegated to the later morning commute ‘shoulder’ time, which is less than ideal for the majority of commuters.”

HeartToHub’s morning train leaves at 8:05 and is scheduled to arrive at Boston’s three stations in under (Yawkey and Back Bay) or just over (South Station) an hour. The evening return-trip non-stopper leaves South Station at 7:35 and arrives at 8:40 p.m.

While a strict 9-to-5-er who works in Boston and lives in Worcester would need to take an earlier train inbound, and would likely prefer an earlier one back home, the HeartToHub planners did the best they could to introduce the first-ever non-stop service to Worcester while also accommodating the needs of commuters at the other stations on the Framingham/Worcester Line.

Perry’s enthusiasm for a well-run, intelligent system is enthusiasm we can all get behind. But we draw the line at calling for scrapping a debut train that was so hard-won by Worcester, and whose idea — if not actuality, yet — is so fundamentally important.

“I really don’t want this to be perceived as an attack on any politicians,” Perry writes in a blog post included with the letter. “They invented the ‘HeartToHub’ train with good intentions — but it just doesn’t work.”

In his letter, he urges Baker to eliminate HeartToHub outright, and reallocate that equipment “to enable better express service for all stations between Worcester & West Natick.”

We say: Not so fast. Given time, infrastructure work, data, investments and adjustments — maintenance work on an asset — smoother, smarter non-stop train service between the two largest cities in New England will arrive. And it will be worth waiting for.

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