Potential loss of weekend trains poses risk to tourism, jobs

Mike Dean/Staff file photoAn MBTA train moves across Beach Street in Manchester. The MBTA is proposing cutting weekend service and curtailing evening service in 2021 to help fill a gap in its budget.

As the MBTA looks to cut costs, commuter trains may not be going up and down the line as often as Cape Ann residents once saw. 

The T has proposed to eliminate weekend services on the commuter rail in 2021 as part of a plan to fill a nearly $580 million budget gap caused by the decline in ridership spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The commuter rail would also end weekday services after 9 p.m. and close the commuter rail station at Pride’s Crossing in Beverly on the Rockport/Newburyport line. 

Cape Ann may be better positioned for the truncated service than other communities served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Its communities, businesses and riders had to adjust when the T cut weekend services in 2017 to repair the Beverly Salem bridge and make mandated safety improvements along the line. They may need to make similar adjustments if the cuts go through.

The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board hopes to save an estimated $130 million by making the cuts, which include shutting down two-dozen bus routes and canceling ferry services. 

“We are in this position, obviously, because of a tremendous loss of fare revenue as ridership has declined across a number of our services,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said last week. “The reductions are not intended to be a permanent shrinkage of MBTA service.”

Drawbridge and destinations

MBTA Bridge Program Senior Director Bradley Nicoll confirmed that although the slash in the MBTA’s budget will postpone a number of big-ticket capital projects, the $80 million project to replace the Gloucester drawbridge is not targeted. Work on the drawbridge, which carries the Rockport Line over the Annisquam River, started in 2018 and is scheduled to be completed in 2022.

“My understanding is that we are moving forward with construction as planned,” Nicoll said in an email to the Times. 

The timing of the cuts might be a silver lining. 

“All train service along this line operates from the West Gloucester station due to ongoing work on the Gloucester rail bridge,” Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Peter Webber noted in an email to the Times. Rail riders already must board T buses to reach the downtown Gloucester and Rockport station.

Webber noted that in addition to the bridge project, added caution caused by the pandemic has lowered the number of weekend riders. 

The elimination of a weekend rail service means visitors to Cape Ann will need to find an alternative way to get to local beaches, mom-and-pop shops, and loved ones.

"(The loss of a weekend rail service) will certainly be detrimental," Discover Gloucester's Executive Director Elizabeth Carey said. "It will jeopardize our local market and those who want to come from Boston or south of us."

“But from my personal observation in Rockport, especially on fair weather weekends, Rockport still sees many visitors from Boston arriving by rail, despite having to transfer to buses at the West Gloucester station for the remainder of the trip,” Webber added.

Cape Ann has seen this before 

When the MBTA announced that it was eliminating weekend train service due to repairs to the Beverly Salem bridge and mandated safety improvements along the line in 2017, locals saw a shift in both foot and vehicle traffic. 

Back then, the Times reported that Manchester businesses had seen a decline in foot traffic by those who would have taken the T to Singing Beach while Rockport saw an increase in cars as people drove to the historic town. 

Webber said that while the current proposal would occur in the winter months, there is a fear that the cuts would have effects that would trickle into the spring and summer seasons.

“We feel that if these plans are implemented and remain in place for the long term, the impacts of Cape Ann’s business community, especially visitor-oriented businesses, would be similar to those anticipated and experienced in 2017,” Webber said.

As history runs the risk of repeating itself, albeit for a different reason and in a different season, those who rely on T for their weekend jobs may be in for a rough commute. 

“Losing commuter rail service is really bad,” West Gloucester resident Jennifer Berkshire said. “It is bad for Gloucester and it is bad for people who rely on the T for their commuting needs.”

Neighbors of the West Gloucester rail station — such as Berkshire — have been dealing with the noise of idling trains for months as the Gloucester Drawbridge reconstruction project temporarily ends the line in their cozy corner of Cape Ann. 

However, Berkshire notes that at this point in time the cancellation of weekend commuter service is a much bigger problem than the trains idling in the wrong location —although both are frustrating.

“As tired as we are of hearing the train idling, we recognize that the repairs will end at some point,” she said, positing that if the MBTA makes these cuts it is going to be hard to get service back for those who need itt the most. 

“No one believes these cuts are temporary,” Berkshire added.

Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@gloucestertimes.com.

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