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Starts & Stops

Down in the dumps on the Downeaster

PHOTOS BY JOHN BLANDING/GLOBE STAFFSnow flew yesterday as Amtrak's Downeaster train pulled into the Anderson Regional Transportation Center in Woburn. PHOTOS BY JOHN BLANDING/GLOBE STAFFSnow flew yesterday as Amtrak's Downeaster train pulled into the Anderson Regional Transportation Center in Woburn. (PHOTOS BY JOHN BLANDING/GLOBE STAFF)
By Noah Bierman
December 21, 2008
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The e-mail sounded so desperate, so needy, so pathetic.

"Please help us - we're suffering the ill effects of loneliness . . . and are collectively nearing nervous breakdown stage as they herd us on to smelly busses where alcohol and laughter are prohibited. We are ever so sad. Pleeze Hep Us!"

It came from Sharon Fernald, a spit-fire paralegal from Raymond, N.H., whom I met in the dining car of the Downeaster train last month. She is one of a gang of self-deprecating super-commuters who get on and off the Downeaster somewhere between Boston and Portland, Maine, every day. They call themselves the "Train Wrecks."

It's a fun train, considering the passengers' lengthy commute, but a real drag when it doesn't run and they put you on a bus.

It was down most of last week, the victim of the devastating ice storm that cut off power to 1.25 million homes and businesses in the Northeast. The shutdown, from Dec. 12 through most of Thursday, was the longest weather-related interruption in the service's seven-year history.

Power outages along the track forced workers to operate signals manually, meaning trains have to slow to 20 miles per hour, said Patricia Quinn, executive director, of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which manages the service operated by Amtrak.

The trains could run, but the rippling delays would have made passenger service impractical, Quinn said. So they contracted buses, which was a bit frustrating at times, especially the first day, when a driver got lost.

"It's not the best-case scenario," Quinn said.

Quinn said workers were doing all they could to restore service faster, but so many people were out of power that they could not, for example, secure enough generators to power the entire track. Even the head of railroad operations was without power until Tuesday.

"Most of the time in snowstorms, we're the one thing that's moving when the airport is closed and the highway's impassable," she said.

Trains were running during Friday afternoon's snowstorm, with delays.

Higher fee, fewer cars
As expected, the recent hike in MBTA parking prices led to a drop in the number of people who used transit lots and garages in November.

The rates went up by $2 per day Nov. 15 - doubling the price at commuter rail lots. That appears to have driven down the average number of weekday parkers from 32,533 in November 2007 to 29,261 last month.

The average could drop even more for December, the first full month with higher prices.

Even with the drop in use, however, the T still brought in more revenue because of the increased fees.

"It's much too early to draw conclusions, although it is very encouraging that we accomplished our primary goal of increasing revenue," said Joe Pesaturo, MBTA spokesman.

The T raised rates because it was running out of money to cover a union salary increase ordered by an arbitrator. The authority took in $2.6 million in parking last month, about $300,000 more than November 2007.

Many commuters have been furious over the increase, which costs most daily commuters about $40 per month more.

It is unclear how much of an effect the decrease in parked cars will have on the T's ridership, which has been going up all year. Ridership numbers for November will not be available until early next month.

Cohen's bumpy road
It's been a tough few weeks for Bernard Cohen, the state transportation secretary who resigned under pressure Monday night, in the midst of a vital debate over the future of Massachusetts roads and rails.

But even on his way out the door, Cohen showed up at a public hearing Monday night in Lynn where he knew he would be eviscerated over the recent toll increase. Cohen remains chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board until Jan. 2, his resignation date.

During the hearings, board members say little. They watch as frustrated commuters and politicians tell them how angry and poor the proposed toll hikes are about to make them.

"I picture those faces, the anger in those faces and what it's going to do to people," fellow board member Mary Z. Connaughton recounted last week, the day after the hearing.

Connaughton has been a big thorn in Cohen's side on turnpike issues, but she and others praised his attendance at the hearing as a sign of character on what must have been a soul-sapping day.

Cohen missed Wednesday night's hearing in Framingham due to what spokesman Klark Jessen called a conflict.

What kind of conflict? "We'll leave it at that," he said.

So maybe Cohen finally had enough.

Please send complaints, comments, or story ideas to starts@globe.com. The column and a listing of major road closures and other transportation advisories can be found at www.boston.com/starts.

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