North Shore leaders on Wednesday called on the state's transportation secretary to push for an all-electric commuter rail system to improve service in the area.

In an online event hosted by the North Shore Alliance for Economic Development, Lynn Mayor Tom McGee compared the current commuter rail system to "Thomas the Tank Engine," with the conductor stepping off the train at each stop.

"We need a 21st century system on the commuter rail," McGee said.

The MBTA's Fiscal Management and Control Board last year adopted plans to transform the 400-mile commuter rail network over the next two decades into a subway-like electric rail, which it said would mean more frequent trains and lower emissions. In April, McGee and other North Shore leaders wrote a letter to the board criticizing the MBTA for planning to buy 25 diesel-powered locomotives rather than focusing on electrification.

McGee's remarks on Wednesday came after a presentation by Jamey Tesler, the state's acting transportation secretary, that pointed out that commuter rail ridership is at only 23% of pre-pandemic levels.

"Twenty percent reflects the reality of a system that doesn't work for people who are along those corridors," McGee told Tesler. "Commuter rail has worked for some people but it hasn't really worked for the North Shore."

Tesler said the MBTA has changed its commuter rail schedule to include more rides throughout the day, rather than focusing on the traditional morning and evening commute times. He pointed to a survey that said 74% of companies plan to permanently shift to more remote work.

"We recognize that the system needs to evolve, and the ridership numbers reflect that," he said.

The Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail line has had the "most durable ridership," said Tesler, and is now at about 37% of pre-pandemic levels.

A faster and more frequent electrified commuter rail system would help communities that are trying to address the housing shortage by building housing near public transportation, said Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill.

"We've got stations where we've focused a lot of (transit-oriented development) already, and stations where we'd like to focus in the future," Cahill said. "But the transportation isn't what it needs to be."

Tesler said the numbers in a variety of transportation modes — cars, trains, subways, buses and airplanes — are all down from pre-pandemic levels but are beginning to rebound. Two areas that have increased since the pandemic are delivery trucks and bike riders, he said.

"Everywhere we're seeing an increase in bicycle activity and pedestrian activity," Tesler said. "We have to think about how to share our spaces and our streets. This is really an important change for all of us."

State Rep. Sally Kerans, of Danvers, asked Tesler how the billions of federal dollars for infrastructure projects will be distributed in Massachusetts if legislation is passed by Congress. Tesler said that has not yet been determined.

"There's a lot to do yet to figure out exactly where that money's going to go," he said.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, the chair of the North Shore Alliance, said local leaders all share a desire "to make sure we're getting the biggest bounce out of those dollars."

"Expediency is on my mind, getting funds to where we need them to get to quickly," Driscoll said.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, pleighton@gloucestertimes.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.

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