The state's Joint Committee on Transportation has agreed to hold two oversight hearings — including one geared toward public input — while investigating a rash of service interruptions and delays that have plagued the MBTA's commuter rail system from Rockport and Gloucester to Central Massachusetts.
Answering a formal request from legislative Republicans — including state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester — the committee has scheduled an initial hearing for Tuesday, April 12 at 2 p.m. in Room A-1 at the State House to question representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the MBTA and the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, which operates the commuter rail system under a contract with the MBTA.
A second hearing, designed to obtain testimony from the general public, will be scheduled at a later date.
Citing a "growing frustration with the MBTA among the residents of the Commonwealth," Tarr and his three GOP Senate colleagues wrote to the chairs of the Transportation Committee on March 7 to formally request the oversight hearings.
"These ongoing delays and interruptions in service are unacceptable, and we owe it to commuters who rely on the MBTA to get to the bottom of these problems and to work to resolve them," Tarr said.
"We want to thank the chairmen of the Transportation Committee for responding so quickly and favorably to the ... request for an oversight hearing," said Senator Tarr. "We're not looking to point the finger of blame at anyone; we're simply trying to get some answers as to why these problems are occurring and how we can prevent them from being repeated in the future."
The MBTA's service has been hit with a variety of problems in recent weeks, including on the Newburyport/Rockport line, with the Rockport trains to and from Boston's North Station carrying commuters and visitors to and from the stations in Gloucester, West Gloucester and Manchester.
Last Tuesday, an electrical malfunction on the Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail line forced the cancellation of one inbound train from Rockport and triggered delays of between 10 to 28 minutes for nine other locomotives, MBTA officials said.
The trouble was triggered when Train 108, which departed Rockport at 6:44 a.m., got stuck at the North Beverly station following a circuit failure. And when workers were unable to restore power, Train 108 had to wait for a push to Beverly station from Train 110, which didn't leave Rockport until 7:25 a.m.
The previous week, passengers in Newburyport who were awaiting their morning train for more than 15 minutes were told belatedly it wasn't coming at all — that they would have to take the one next on the schedule.
Yet, the worst of the problems occurred during the week of Feb. 28 to March 4, when a commuter rail train from Boston took more than four hours to reach Worcester, even though the trip normally takes less than 90 minutes, and when — three days later — several hundred passengers on board two Fitchburg-bound trains were delayed for about two hours when another electronic circuit board failed.
The T has raised fares three times in the past decade and been given funds from a sales tax increase, but has continued to struggle with budget deficits and a heavy debt burden associated with previous investments and expansions.
Despite the recent spring of foulups and delays spokesman Scott Farmelant of the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company maintained that commuter rail service has improved since the problems experienced earlier this year.
"Service has improved markedly since the challenges of the winter-related delays of January and early February," Farmelant said, noting that the Newburyport/Rockport line was running 88 percent on-time last Tuesday despite the electrical snag.
"While there are still delays," he added, "it's much improved service reflective of the (60-day) action plan put in place by MBTA General Manager Richard Davey and MBCR General Manager Hugh Kiley Jr."