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Starts & Stops

More Pats fans riding the rails to Gillette

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 16, 2011

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With the Patriots hosting the Jets in the playoffs today, it seems like a good time for a football-themed Starts and Stops. In a season of gaudy statistics for the Pats — a 14-2 record, a plus-28 turnover ratio, 335 consecutive pass attempts without an interception for Tom Brady — here’s another impressive number: 20,507 fans have taken the train to Gillette Stadium.

That is the most in the six seasons that the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. has run that MBTA operation, according to Scott Farmelant, a commuter rail spokesman. The figure beat the 19,087 people who took the train last season, and it should rise by 2,000 or more today. This despite a 2010 price increase from $12 to $15 round trip.

The Patriots train is one of the few cash cows for the fiscally beleaguered MBTA. Although the ride can be a bit rickety and crowded, the fans who take it consider it a good alternative to the pain and expense of inching along Route 1 in traffic and paying $40 or more to park.

The service is actually two trains — a 12-coach train that leaves out of Boston’s South Station and a six-coach train out of Providence — that access a part-time station on the eastern edge of the Gillette grounds. The town of Foxborough does not otherwise have commuter rail, so the trains use a slow freight connection that branches off the better-maintained Franklin and Providence commuter lines. Each train makes one trip to the game, with multiple stops along the way, and one trip back.

The 12-coach, 1,950-seat Boston train dwarfs the configurations that the T runs on regular routes. The Patriots service has the potential to grow — fewer than 1 in 30 fans rides the train — but is limited by the need to provide railcars and staff for the rest of the commuter rail.

In an e-mail, Farmelant said the service has “received overwhelming favorable response from the public since its introduction,’’ calling it a “safe, reliable, and festive way’’ to get to the game and back.

But reader Dan Walsh of Hingham gave it a less glowing review after taking the train to a game from Dedham Corporate Center Station. First he found that only one of the 12 coaches had an open door, meaning hundreds of passengers had to squeeze through the sole entrance, before a second opened. “A customer service rep just shrugged her shoulders when I asked why,’’ he wrote.

For the return, Walsh found himself racing from his seat at the game — with no time to stop and use the facilities — to navigate the network of stadium exit ramps and cross the acres of Gillette parking lot in time for the scheduled departure, 30 minutes after the final play. Once aboard the train, a conductor told him there should be two or three bathrooms available, but only knew where one was. The line to use it was daunting. (Only some of the coaches have bathrooms, and the configuration is different every week.)

At Norwood Central, the stop was announced as Dedham — a mistake that went uncorrected until after the train had pulled away, Walsh said. “This Patriots train seems like an opportunity to win over hundreds of potential commuters who might not ordinarily use the commuter rail,’’ he wrote. “Instead, I found MBTA personnel, equipment, and facilities failed to meet the fundamental needs of riders.’’

Asked about it, Farmelant had a Belichickian answer.

“With success comes challenges,’’ he said. It is what it is.

Honor of honor boxes questionedLast week’s news about the MBTA’s new effort to pursue scofflaws who fail to pay at honor-system lots — some of whom have racked up hundreds of days of parking without paying — generated a lot of feedback.

Without being sympathetic to those who take advantage of the system, many readers expressed frustration with the cash at the 66 MBTA lots that lack gates and regular personnel. Parkers at the honor lots are supposed to fold and stuff dollar bills into numbered slots corresponding with their parking spaces — while rushing to catch a train.

Many were unhappy with the T’s parking rate ($4 at all commuter rail lots, regardless of their popularity). A number of readers think the T should lower the price or provide more staffing or security cameras.

“I ride the commuter rail every day, and I pay a huge ticket fare to do so. I also pay a very high parking fee as well. Do you know how many times I have paid for my parking and STILL received [a failure-to-pay envelope]?’’ reader Alyson Gauley wrote. “Do you know how many cars have been vandalized in MBTA parking lots? My car alone was vandalized TWICE. I refuse to pay 3 past due tickets because they were erroneous; I am certain that the attendants who check the boxes pilfer the money.’’

John Tavares, who catches the train in Middleborough, said the T is hardly an “innocent victim.’’ “I have received so many incorrect fines it is not even funny,’’ he wrote, adding that he is on a first-name basis with parking contractor LAZ and that he has been told some of his tickets resulted from failure to fold his bills properly.

Hank Droney, a Canton Junction commuter, said he pays when he knows the mistake is his, but has held onto four nonpayment notices because he was sure he was not credited despite putting the right amount in the right slot. Like many, he wanted to know more about the system’s inner workings.

MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera said the T is confident its system has sufficient safeguards. The collectors — three companies manage the lots — cannot access individual slots. Instead, they open the back wall of the payment box to reveal a second wall of plexiglass, which allows them to take a digital photo documenting which slots contain folded bills and which do not, as well as how many are bunched in each slot. Then they press a button, and the money pools into one tamper-proof container.

“It’s like ‘CSI,’ ’’ Rivera said, adding that audits have made the T “pretty confident’’ no money is pocketed and that notices are issued only to those who fail to pay, insert insufficient funds, or pay in the wrong slot.

There are changes on the horizon. In February, the T will unveil a $70 monthly pass that will save time and hassle, and a little money, for commuters who park at the lots. That follows the introduction last summer of a pay-by-phone credit card system.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.