Document Request Reveals Which Commuter Rail Trains Are Frequently Delayed

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There is a unique relationship between the MBTA and its riders founded on a trust we give the authority in return for reliable transportation services. This is especially true for commuter rail passengers who pay more, expect more, and invest more in their commuting plans; whether it’s planning on dropping the kids off at school, bringing them to practice, or making it home in time to cook dinner, these riders have a lot more at stake if the trains are running slow.

Lately this relationship has become strained, catalyzed most recently by last winter’s poor performance. From a 2009 peak of about 40 million riders, the commuter rail’s annual ridership dropped to approximately 35 million in 2013 despite adding service to Rhode Island during this time. As the gap between operating costs and fare revenue grows larger, the MBTA must increasingly work to restore public trust and reverse this negative ridership trend.

However, instead of strengthening this relationship through transparency, the MBTA is withholding relevant performance data that commuters could use to optimize their plans. A recent document request issued by Pioneer Institute via shows important trends that, if available to the public, would surely influence the commuting decisions of many commuter rail riders.

Between September 1st and November 6th, there were 383 commuter trains that were either cancelled or severely delayed (Pioneer has reached out to the MBTA’s legal department numerous times over the last two weeks for clarification but we have received no response). 250 of these trains, or about two thirds, were from 11 scheduled trains. This means that the majority of delays/cancellations are concentrated at certain times and places, and that commuters wielding this information could make smarter choices.

For example, a co-worker here at Pioneer Institute typically takes train number 512 to get to work in the morning from Framingham. During the aforementioned time period, this specific train was cancelled or tardy 18 times. By arriving less than twenty minutes earlier she could ride train 510 instead, which has been late only once during this period. The ability to identify the most crowded and delay prone trains is an important weapon for commuters during their daily battle.

Greater transparency and access to train specific data for the commuter rail could alleviate congestion on certain trains, and increase overall on-time performance. Currently, on-time performance divided by line and time of day is all that is published by the MBTA.

When it comes to buses and the subway, the MBTA’s recent transparency record leaves much to be desired. Between October 2014 and September 2015 there was no consistently published performance data for the bus or subway systems. When the new report format was finally published in September, the MBTA stated that it was a work in progress.

Pioneer quickly noted the obvious shortcomings and lack of data in the new reports when compared to previous versions, yet the new reports remain entirely unchanged in the two months since their release. The reports also remain relatively hidden on the MBTA’s website under ‘Board Meetings’ instead of reviving the old ‘Scorecard’ section.

This is turning into a real head-scratcher.

The MBTA is sitting on a wealth of performance data, much of which used to be regularly published, and yet in the last two months they have failed to improve on their existing scorecards by including this information. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if your local bus line is among the worst performing, or that your morning commute train is the most likely to be late?

The damaged relationship between the MBTA and its riders is tough to fix, but the simple step of publishing data that is already available internally could go a long way. Increased transparency brings about greater trust and confidence in the system. This bond will not be repaired until the MBTA makes headway with its ‘work in progress.’


The following table lists all train numbers with at least 5 delays/cancellations between 9/1/15 and 11/6/15. To check train times please see the MBTA’s website.

Train # Train Line Time of Day Delays/Cancellations
817 Providence Evening 48
402 Fitchburg Morning 43
331 Lowell Evening 23
732 Franklin Morning 21
623 Needham Evening 20
337 Lowell Evening 19
904 Providence Morning 18
512 Framingham Morning 18
723 Franklin Evening 14
529 Framingham Evening 14
812 Providence Morning 12
821 Providence Evening 9
804 Providence Morning 8
604 Needham Morning 8
406 Fitchburg Morning 7
154 Newburyport Morning 7
260 Haverhill Evening 7
508 Framingham Morning 7
583 Framingham Evening 7
906 Providence Morning 6
919 Providence Evening 6
721 Franklin Evening 5