Don’t stop the weekend commuter rail

Near-empty commuter trains filing into North Station on the weekends are another sign of the pandemic’s quieting effect, and also a convenient target for those holding the budget knife at the MBTA. But shutting off weekend service completely, as is now planned, won’t just park underused trains and allow a strained agency to count its savings. Dong so, even if temporarily, will have wide-ranging effects that should make T officials reconsider.

Ending weekend service removes an important resource for workers in the state’s Gateway Cities, such as Lawrence and Salem, who need access to jobs in Boston on Saturdays and Sundays. Indeed, it hinders any commuter working a non-traditional shift, while also foiling people in search of weekend recreation who might consider taking the train instead of a car.

All of these riders will need to catch trains long before the economy is recovered to the point that the MBTA will be ready to resume weekend commuter service. It will also make it that much harder for places these riders call home -- the North Shore, Merrimack Valley and any other region in eastern Massachusetts -- to recover from the COVID-19 slowdown.

This isn’t to make light of the $579 million budget shortfall that planners at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority see on the horizon in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The agency’s Fiscal Management and Control Board is pushing a boulder uphill as it prepares major changes to operations to make up that gap.

Among those adjustments, according to a presentation at a meeting last week, is eliminating all of MBTA ferries — between Hingham, Hull, Boston and Charlestown. The agency plans to eliminate 25 buses and consolidate 14 others. Fewer buses would operate on underused routes, and all bus service would end by midnight. The T would scale back subway service by 20%.

In reviewing the commuter rail system, the T also plans to eliminate stations including Prides Crossing on the Rockport line. Its regular commuters would have to board trains at Beverly Farms, about a mile away.

The T would also end all rail service during the week after 9 p.m., and it would scale back the total number of trains it runs by about 15%.

The MBTA is under intense pressure make up for lost revenues, and bailouts alone will not save the agency. A $1 billion federal infusion for public transit in Massachusetts was announced less than a month after the first wave of coronavirus-related lockdowns, with the MBTA in line for $4 of every $5 of that package.

That doesn’t solve the long-term consequences of a severely depleted ridership, however, as far fewer people commute into Boston and close-in suburbs for work, by any mode of transportation. The commuter rail retains about 1 in every 8 riders it had before the pandemic. That makes it only slightly more resilient than the ferry service, which is hanging on to about 12% of its pre-pandemic ridership.

The MBTA says it’s not planning to make permanent all of the cuts it has outlined, which are scheduled to take effect next spring, once riders and local officials have a chance to weigh in. “We will bring back higher levels of service when demand and travel patterns change, and there is durable revenue to support it,” the agency says on its website. It hedges that, on the commuter rail, some changes may be necessary for the long term to reflect new travel patterns.

If you’re someone who depends on a commuter train to access a job or regular appointments up the line, you’d be right to assume that Saturday and Sunday service, once suspended, will be a long time returning. And that will make a large portion of the region’s minimum and low-wage jobs off limits to workers in this region who cannot afford to buy, park and maintain a car.

It’s clear the MBTA needs to make tough choices. And there’s nothing like targeted cuts to draw out communities to defend the precious train, bus and ferry routes that tether them and their commuters to the city.

But there must be solutions to the T’s woes short of the wholesale elimination of weekend service on the commuter rail. Maybe planners can further narrow an already reduced Saturday and Sunday train schedule, or create express trains to North Station from cities with ample commuter parking, such as Salem, Haverhill, Newburyport or Lawrence.

There must be other measures that can make the commuter rail more efficient than eliminating a service that is such a vital connection between our region and Boston.

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