MBTA Creates a Storm on the Fairmount Line

Hoai Thuong Tran

It may seem that the Snowmageddon of 2015 is a distant memory, but for many MBTA users, the winter season lives on as a cold reminder of being stranded in crowded stations and wondering when the next train would be arriving, if at all.

This year, the Fairmount Line on the commuter rail, which runs from Hyde Park through Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury to South Station, is eliciting ridership concerns before the first snow has even fallen. In October, the MBTA left hundreds of Fairmount Line riders to their own devices when the normally convenient commuter rail train failed to show up five days in a row. This followed several other unannounced cancellations in August and September. CLF and our partners are calling on the MBTA to address these service issues – which are impacting riders in some of the city’s most underserved and low-income neighborhoods – immediately.

Is the MBTA ignoring customers in underserved communities in order to protect ridership in more affluent ones?

More Equivocation from the MBTA

The MBTA’s excuse for the unexpected cancellations? Mechanical failures. However, the transit agency conveniently left out the fact that those mechanical failures were experienced on other lines – and that it was diverting the operational Fairmount Line trains to serve them. Once  the MBTA was forced to acknowledge the real reason behind the cancellations, it claimed that they weren’t really such a hardship for riders, because the Fairmount Line serves fewer customers and every stop on the line has at least some bus service available.

That’s cold comfort to riders. Switching from the train to a local bus can mean the difference between a direct 20-minute commute and a 1-hour commute consisting of multiple bus and train transfers. Serving more low-income and minority riders than any other commuter rail line, the Fairmount Line represents a larger problem at hand, intentional or not: Is the MBTA ignoring customers in underserved communities in order to protect ridership in more affluent ones?

Getting to a Solution – Now

CLF worked for years to make the Fairmount Line a reality – it was a key part of commitments we secured as part our lawsuit against the Commonwealth over increased air pollution caused by the Big Dig. Better public transit encourages people to drive less, which in turn reduces greenhouse gases – an imperative in this era of climate change. And making sure that public transit is equitable and accessible to all is a critical part of the equation. But with these cancellations just the latest challenge facing Fairmount Line riders – infrequent service and the inability to use Charlie Cards on the line already serve as barriers to growing its ridership – we’re concerned that this latest hassle will cause ridership to suffer even more.

Together with local partners such as Greater Four Corners Action Coalition, we’re now working to convince the MBTA to immediately address this problem. We’re particularly asking the MBTA to follow through on the commitments made in its most recent Capital Investment Plan, in which funding has been set aside for refurbished commuter rail locomotives and coaches. This would will allow for shorter, dedicated train sets be used on the Fairmount Line. Such train sets would not be usable on other commuter rail lines, protecting the Fairmount Line from unexpected cancellations. They would also allow the agency to schedule more frequent service on the Fairmount Line and make the service between Hyde Park to South Station faster, more akin to subway service, meriting a rebrand of the route as the Indigo Line.

It’s past time the MBTA delivered on the promise to provide more dependable, affordable, equitable, and sustainable transportation options to all of our neighborhoods. Until the MBTA puts in place a permanent solution, it should instruct Keolis, the private operator of the T’s commuter rail system, not to use the Fairmount Line as backup for other commuter rail lines in the system.

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