February 19, 2017

Editorial: Attention, passengers

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Union Station

Sun Staff/Worcester Sun

Where's my train? If you're staring down the tracks at Union Station, you may need a new schedule soon.

On the commuter rail front, a setback: Officials plan to add stops to the Heart to Hub’s evening run from Boston to Worcester, beginning in May.

And things aren’t looking any better over on the bus front. The WRTA is contemplating fare increases as part of a plan to counteract a deep budget deficit.

Neither move is a giant jolt to the system, and neither came out of nowhere. But they are important disappointments in a city that has been working long and hard to bring its infrastructure up to speed with the future.

Worcester’s public-transportation picture has made enormous progress over the last few years. And any system this complicated will experience problems and changes. But these two glitches are more than just a call to the handyman for tweaks and patch-ups. They’re warnings.

The moves tighten the screws on Worcester commuters and officials to do more to ensure that Worcester’s public-transportation groundwork and goals continue in the right direction.

As we noted last May for the debut of the milestone Heart to Hub service, improvements to the Framingham/Worcester Line paid off noticeably up and down last May’s new MBTA timetable.

The Heart to Hub service features one nonstop train to Boston weekday mornings and a nonstop train back at night. But one needn’t be riding the Heart to Hub morning train, the 552, to enjoy a faster inbound commute. We calculated, for example, that the commuter rail schedule showed all seven peak-hour morning trains out of Union Station getting to Boston faster — 13.4 percent faster, altogether — compared with the schedule that last May’s new timetable replaced.

The rollout of Heart to Hub hasn’t been especially smooth, and ridership has been lower than hoped.

Practicalities are an issue: Commuters arrive at two of Boston’s three stops (Yawkey and Back Bay) in less than an hour, and at the third (South Station) in an hour and two minutes — but the arrival times themselves (8:57, 9:02 and 9:07 a.m.) don’t work for people who have a typical 9-to-5 work schedule.

The nonstop train for the return trip is also at an inconvenient time for many: The 551 doesn’t leave South Station until 7:35 p.m.

Reliability and performance for the Worcester/Framingham Line trains have suffered since May, especially in the first seven months. That is in part, officials say, because Heart to Hub runs stress the schedule, and in part because of track problems and other system shortcomings that are being addressed.

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Union Station

As we wrote earlier this month, we applaud the recent efforts by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and its commuter-rail operator Keolis Commuter Services to increase on-time performance across the schedule between Worcester and Boston.

We also appreciate that Worcester City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. and Mayor Joseph M. Petty wrote to Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve asking that they keep the Heart to Hub going and imploring improvements.

Their letter was prompted by the decision to add stops, come this May, to the previously nonstop evening Heart to Hub. Pollack had said last year that the Heart to Hub would be closely watched and that changes, even elimination of the service, could greet its one-year anniversary.

While the proposed adjustment isn’t as harsh as it could have been — some advocates have for months pushed to end Heart to Hub — it was not the change Worcester riders legitimately wish for, and that Augustus and Petty pushed for in their letter.

“Worcester needs to have nonstop train service that will accommodate a 9-to-5 work schedule and deliver passengers to work on time in the morning and home for dinner in the evening,” they wrote, and said they “respectfully request the MBTA and Keolis deliver a schedule that better serves the needs of the growing workforce traveling between Worcester and Boston every day.”

We hope the letter works, to at least serve notice that commuter rail matters to Worcester and by extension to the Massachusetts economy.

But words are one thing. What would really get the attention of the state’s transportation decision-makers are ticket sales, day after day, to and from Union Station.

Demand is the bottom line. Area residents should remember that commuter rail is up and running like never before in Worcester, with modern trains ready to take them to Boston and stops in between not just for jobs, but for errands, events and pleasure trips.

The WRTA’s financial woes, meanwhile, are nothing new, but are particularly disheartening in light of the remarkable upgrades it has enjoyed in recent years. The Worcester Regional Transit Authority’s fleet and operations have been modernized, and its impressive transportation facility opened four years ago, front-and-center in the city’s evolving downtown.

But with state millions not rolling in as expected, the WRTA is counting on more quarters clinking into fareboxes, and — worse — could be looking at service cuts down the road.

In light of a projected budget deficit for next year of more than $900,000, the WRTA’s Advisory Board at its meeting Thursday proposed a schedule of gradual fare increases.

Fares would hike beginning this July, when the current cash fare of $1.50 would become $1.75. It would rise to $2 in July 2020 and stay at that amount, according to the proposal, which lays out annual fare changes through July 2021. Other WRTA fares — one-day passes, monthly passes, Charlie Cards and other categories — would also increase.

It has been a while, eight years, since local bus patrons faced a fare increase; and the board warned last spring that one was probably coming. The increases proposed are modest.

But we want our buses to be doing better.

Augustus and Petty might want to join forces for another letter, this time to urge the state to up its support to the RTAs, which have been unexpectedly level-funded at $82 million the last two fiscal years, according to Friday’s Telegram & Gazette report about the advisory board meeting.

The WRTA should also make full use of its agility as a local entity. The declines in ridership and fare revenue discussed at Thursday’s meeting aren’t all due to factors outside the WRTA’s control, such as relatively low gasoline prices and more use of Uber and other ride-hailing services. Listening closely to customers, and anticipating and adjusting to the changing needs of the community, are old-fashioned methods of gaining customer loyalty that will always be effective.

Worcester has a bus fleet to be proud of. The WRTA and city leaders need to find ways to get more people aboard. Just as for train ridership, bus use in the city and its suburbs is ultimately a reflection of customer convenience and demand.

Transportation is a critical component of Worcester’s vision of a thriving future. Setbacks are expected, and serve us well when we respond appropriately to keep our vision on course.

But whatever the officials do, we urge residents to be riders. They hold the keys. Accept the public transportation system with all its good points and perpetual imperfections, and use it.Nothing makes a city come alive like people with all kinds of places to go, and ways to get there.

Nothing makes a city come alive like people with all kinds of places to go, and ways to get there.

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