DURING THE ORANGE LINE shutdown, the commuter rail network proved its tremendous value to Greater Boston’s transit system. It also showed exciting potential for the future. Last month, the MBTA added additional trains to serve Forest Hills, Hyde Park, and Oak Grove; increased its marketing of commuter rail; and waived fares for riders in Boston and many suburban stations. It is not a surprise that these strategies worked to increase commuter rail ridership. Faster commutes, lower fares, and more frequent service are a recipe for success. The region should now build on these positive outcomes and rethink how Greater Boston uses commuter rail.

Commuter rail can be more than just an option for suburb-to-Boston commuters; it should be an integral part of the rapid transit system with service levels and frequencies equivalent to the subway. The recent increase of 8,000 riders daily on commuter rail during the Orange Line shutdown demonstrates the potential when the system enhances service. It is possible to deliver reliable, frequent, and affordable service on commuter rail that would bring substantial benefits to the entire Greater Boston region.

As the MBTA continues to address the Federal Transit Administration’s safety requirements, significant disruptions to the Red Line and Green Line are likely. Lengthy shutdowns are also scheduled for major highways like the Sumner Tunnel and sections of the Massachusetts Turnpike. In the next few months, simple improvements to commuter rail fares and schedules would provide viable alternatives for riders amidst these ongoing disruptions. These targeted actions can also greatly increase transit ridership, help reduce roadway traffic, and accelerate implementation of regional rail service to the area.

Enhancing service frequency is one way to increase ridership. The added service to Forest Hills and Hyde Park and use of the Oak Grove commuter rail platform provided riders with an alternative to longer shuttle bus rides. While infrastructure constraints limit how frequently trains from the main line can stop at Forest Hills, it should be possible to increase the number of trains serving the Forest Hills station and Hyde Park in the morning peak, providing a faster trip than is available by a bus transfer to the Orange Line. Parallel commuter rail service also benefits riders on the Red Line along the South Shore and the Orange Line in Malden.

Addressing affordability of a commuter rail trip is an obvious, proven, and essential way to increase the appeal of commuter rail. During the Orange Line shutdown, the MBTA essentially waived fees inside Zone 2. So riders near stations such as Lynn, Waltham, Readville, and Wyoming Hill faced the choice of a free, faster trip into Boston on commuter rail or a long bus to subway trip. When fares returned to the usual rate of $6 for a one-way ticket, commuter rail became less attractive for many potential riders. Equalizing fares with the subway allows these riders to gain a faster trip for an affordable price.

Providing reliable, frequent service across the board also makes commuter rail more useful to neighborhoods that have access to commuter rail, but currently it is extremely poor service. The Fairmount Line, serving a dense, underserved corridor of Boston, sees trains only every 45 minutes; the Fitchburg Line serves North Cambridge, plus inner suburbs like Waltham and Belmont, but trains arrive only once an hour. Implementing these measures is essential to addressing traffic congestion, carbon emission reduction plans, and social equity goals while the MBTA continues to prepare for safety repairs on the MBTA system. Upgrades to commuter rail can support a high-quality of life and economic competitiveness this region expects and deserves. The pandemic has shown that Greater Boston cannot rely on telecommuting and flexible schedules to solve its larger mobility problems—it is an inequitable and ineffective approach that benefits few, limits economic activity, and does not reduce congestion.

It is now time to bring permanent changes to the commuter rail operating model. And the next steps for the MBTA should include:

  • Provide 30-minute frequency on rail lines within Route 128, starting with stations paralleling subway lines.
  • Expand Zone 1A fares to cover all commuter rail stations served by the subway.
  • Ensure that alternative commuter rail service is free during diversions
  • Continued marketing of the commuter rail as an option for inner core travel wherever possible, including highlighting connection opportunities.

These changes can be introduced now and set the stage for larger investments to implement regional rail and fully electrify the region’s commuter rail system that supports statewide decarbonization, public health, and equity goals. Phased rail investments will transform the way this region commutes, benefiting traditional commuters but also expanding the reach of the rapid transit system without carving new rights of way and would relieve crowded buses and congested highways. The urban core of Boston can be connected to Salem and Waltham as easily as it is to Jamaica Plain and Davis Square.

As we advance the widely accepted view that Massachusetts needs to move more people in fewer vehicles, as we focus on mode shift strategies that help reduce carbon emissions in the short term, and as we advance the remaking of an interconnected public transportation system that is regionally and socially equitable, our best approach is to look at strategies and policies that have been proven to work. We have enough clear examples of how our transit system is suffering from decades of underinvestment, deferred maintenance, and delays in bringing new vehicles into service. We need actions that are proven to work. We have data and recent experience from the Orange Line shutdown that shows how important good public transit is for the region’s current and future prosperity.

With a population that will continue to grow, especially given the current boom in life sciences, commuter rail transformation is necessary to keep the region functioning rather than grinding to a halt in its own traffic. A transition to regional rail, a reflection that our intercity rail network is about a lot more than commuting to work, begins with using existing equipment for more frequent and affordable service. This will change the entire region’s mobility for the better.

This article is a collaboration of TransitMatters members Matthew Petersen, Matt Robare, Ethan Finlan, and Jarred Johnson and A Better City staff Tom Ryan, Scott Mullen, Tom Nally, and Caitlin Allen-Connelly.