MBTA commuter rail should release on-time data from every station every day

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As Pioneer has pointed out numerous times in the past, the MBTA has a habit of putting a positive public-relations spin on its shaky on-time performance record.  A Fox 25 investigative report takes the MBTA to task for massaging on-time data and keeping the public in the dark about its real record.  The report validates Pioneer’s ongoing concerns about the lack of transparency at the T, and furthers the call for increased accountability.

After more than five years employing an easily-accessible, data-rich reporting scheme, albeit with summary rather than detailed data, the T has spent the last year crafting a new barebones successor. Although the T claimed in September that the new reports are still a ‘work in progress,’ there have been almost no changes since they were first published.

Instead of giving overall figures for numerous performance metrics across all transportation modes as it has in the past, the T now only provides weekly on-time performance statistics for the rail systems which are broken down into ‘peak’ and ‘off-peak’ hours. There is no longer any data regarding vehicle breakdowns, ridership, or service levels.

Meanwhile, it is clear from Keolis’ Commuter Rail contract that they provide the T with daily performance reports including train-by-train analyses of delays and breakdowns. Daily reports are then supplemented with comprehensive monthly summaries.

Pioneer Institute calls for the T to release daily on-time performance results for every commuter rail station. This would represent a real and effective reform by the new MBTA administration. After all, the taxpayers and commuter rail customers are already paying for that very data to be submitted every day by Keolis to the T under the terms of its contract. The problem for years has been that the MBTA keeps that raw data to itself and reports summary data, adjusted in a way that no commuter rail rider can ever verify that the delayed train he or she experienced was actually reported as late.

Instead, we get a dumbed-down weekly report that the MBTA spends its own time and resources making. The recent Fox 25 report shows that these statistics are subject to administrative alterations, including late trains that are forgiven. Additionally, Pioneer Institute has found multiple errors in commuter rail reports in the past.

Releasing daily reports would allow commuters to confirm that their delayed train is being correctly logged and not used to pad the stats. Since Keolis supplies daily reports anyway, it is the path of least resistance for the T’s Office of Performance Management and Innovation.

Transparency is also the best avenue for the T to regain the trust of commuters. There is no single transparency policy that will accomplish this, but it requires an attitude and culture to permeate the agency. Publishing transparent performance data, improving the quality of service alerts, and responding to records requests within the state-mandated timeframe are all manifestations of a culture of transparency which is clearly lacking currently.

The T has plenty of work to do, so it should stop wasting its time repackaging data-rich reports to hide its poor performance.


Scott Haller is a senior at Northeastern University who began working at Pioneer Institute through the Co-op Program.