The Apparent Illogic in Reduced Train Service

Updated: Yesterday, the Boston Globe published an article on changes to the commuter rail schedule the MBCR plans to enact during the next snowstorm. A volley of angry tweets followed the article yesterday, subtly noting the apparent illogic of reducing train service to improve train service.

We all know by now that much of the MBTA's and MBCR's is well beyond their rated life cycle and many have missed the mid-life overhaul that would've kept them running more reliably up to the day of their replacement. (Of course the reasons for this are largely ignored and squarely placed on the MBTA for its inability to budget for capital expenses but that's for another post.) With that, many troublesome pieces of equipment are nonetheless scrambled into service in order to have the necessary capacity to move the many thousands of commuters who flood platforms every rush hour.

The problem is that much of this equipment isn't worth running for the number of delays (and angry commuters) they produce. From an operations perspective, the most logical move would be to remove those trains from service to properly repair them and prevent them from delaying other trains or stopping service entirely. This reduces the number of trains that run, increases the headway between trains, and makes trains more crowded (which produces its own delays), but if the remaining trains that run are more reliable, the occurrence of equipment-related delays goes down and everyone gets to where they need to go with fewer frustrations. Additionally, by increasing headways and reducing the number of trains running, riders along the line are more insulated from momentary delays. This, of course, only makes it harder to get passengers moving again when there are delays not related to equipment failure, like medical emergencies or police action. The ultimate solution is replacement of failing trains and repair of various track and wayside components. All of that should start coming in with MBTA's 2012-2016 Capital Investment Plan [PDF]; the depth and breadth of the CIP and whether or not it is fully funded are entirely different matters.

The Globe article itself is scant on the details of how the MBCR will 'devote more staff time and financial resources to maintaining coaches and locomotives' and how, if at all, it relates to this reduced inclement weather schedule. For improved fleet maintenance, reducing the number of trains at all times would make the most sense, but it's likely MBCR has extra stock that it can scramble into action in order to maintain cars like the control car on Ms. DelBono's cancelled 6:45 train. The new commuter cars set to start arriving in 2012 on north shore lines should provide the additional stock MBCR needs to have a buffer of working equipment while adding extra rush hour capacity.

National Context on Weather-Related Problems

One tweet yesterday from an incredulous Bostonian asked why any commuter in the Boston area would ever care about the performance of other railroads in regards to the presentation the MBCR delivered yesterday, as obtained by the Globe. The issues other railroads in the Northeast are experiencing provide a context for the issues that have plagued the Boston area commuter rail network, the very context many riders are lacking when they're standing at platforms waiting for their trains that makes them feel victimized by their transport operator.

This isn't to excuse the lack of communication by the MBCR with regard to its delays and cancelled trains, but instead to point out that even operators like the Long Island Railroad and MetroNorth Railroad with their modern equipment aren't immune to track conditions or don't also have to cut service due to aging equipment.