THE MBTA’S commuter rail trains, which ran nearly empty during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, are starting to fill up.
Ridership isn’t back to prepandemic levels, but it has returned to around 76 percent of what it was before COVID. That’s a big jump. A system that used to be a laggard among the MBTA’s various modes of travel is now on a par with the authority’s top performers – the bus and the Blue Line.
The turnaround has occurred largely this year. Average weekday ridership was 119,354 prior to COVID, according to conductor counts. Ridership was less than 10 percent of that amount through much of 2020, rose to 45 percent by the end of 2021, and then started to build steadily from there on with the occasional blip downward.
Commuter rail ridership as a percent of pre-COVID levels was the lowest of every MBTA transportation mode except ferry through most of 2021. But now commuter rail trails close behind only bus and the Blue Line, the two modes that were the quickest to bounce back.
The more recent bounce back for commuter rail suggests more employees are returning to in-person work and many of them are choosing to ride rather than drive. Officials at Keolis Commuter Services, the private company hired to run the T’s commuter rail system, say their regular hourly service has also been a factor in the passenger resurgence.
The Orange Line shut down from August 19 until September 19 also played a role. Many regular riders of the Orange Line shifted over to commuter rail during the shutdown. The average weekday commuter rail ridership in the week prior to the shutdown was 66,533, but that rose during the shutdown – initially to 73,072 during the first week and 87,131 in the final week.
Ridership fell back to 81,393 the first week after the shutdown ended, and then increased to 85,446 the last week in September. Ridership during the last week in September was 18,913 higher than it was prior to the shutdown, suggesting continued commuter rail ridership growth even without the spillover from the Orange Line.
Weekend ridership on the commuter rail system has done even better. It has surpassed 100 percent of pre-COVID levels since August 2021 and even hit 200 percent of pre-COVID levels once. During the Orange Line shutdown, weekend ridership averaged 165 percent of pre-COVID levels.
“The MBTA Commuter Rail has fared better than, or is on par with, other U.S. rail systems in ridership return,” the T said in a press release. “Commuter Rail attributes the steady gains in ridership to the transition to a clockface schedule, which offers more service throughout the day, providing flexibility for a workforce with changing needs and increased options for passengers who are traveling beyond traditional work hours.”