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Worcester express trip seemed to take forever

On rails, 4 hours of frustration

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / March 2, 2011

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Some passengers thought that the 5 p.m. express train to Worcester Monday was doomed from the start.

It seemed to move sluggishly out of Boston, and conductors were slow to collect fares, two bad signs. Many of the 1,200 passengers were wary, because they had sat on an inbound train that very morning that was delayed nearly two hours.

But that did not prepare them for what came next: Train P523 ground to a halt between Newtonville and West Newton, where it sat idle for more than 90 minutes. Riders were not allowed to disembark, because the train was too far from a station. When they finally got a tow to Worcester, a trip scheduled for 80 minutes had taken 244.

“I was going bananas,’’ said Kathleen Jones, a new mother who was trying to get home to her 5-month-old son. “How can they get away with this?’’

Commuter rail executives apologized to riders yesterday, acknowledging the delay was caused by the company’s decision to reuse a locomotive that had failed earlier that day.

Elected officials and MBTA leaders said the episode, following a winter in which commuter rail service has been repeatedly hobbled by snowstorms, should be taken into consideration when the T decides whether to rehire the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. That private consortium is paid more than $250 million annually to run commuter rail for the MBTA, under a contract that expires in mid-2013.

Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray said yesterday that he is encouraged by signs there will be competition for the next contract, and he thinks the MBTA should seriously consider bringing the service in-house.

Even as the commuter rail operator offered cash refunds to affected riders and handed out formal letters of apology at South Station yesterday, state leaders signaled that the latest failure was different.

Two weeks ago, a group of state officials met with commuter rail executives to express frustration over the repeated delays and disruptions that had affected tens of thousands of riders and caused myriad problems this winter. But state officials also acknowledged that the age of the MBTA-owned fleet and the severity of winter had contributed to poor performance, and they said they were encouraged recently by a stretch of days in which more than 90 percent of trains arrived on time.

But Monday’s problem was preventable, said Richard A. Davey, the MBTA’s general manager.

“The MBCR got an F,’’ Davey said. He likened the reuse of the failed locomotive to running a car on an important trip with a “check engine’’ light on. “When delays are preventable, MBCR needs to have a significantly higher sense of urgency in preventing delays.’’

Representative William M. Straus, House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, said MBCR “bid on the contract knowing what system and what level of equipment they would get to manage.’’

He and his cochairman, Senator Thomas M. McGee, each said that lawmakers are paying close attention to the problem, adding that Monday’s problems made it clear this is about “more than just the snow.’’

The locomotive first broke down Monday in Grafton, the second stop on the 6:55 a.m. (Train P508) inbound from Worcester. Officials attributed that to a failed governor, which regulates speed. That train was eventually coupled to P512, the 7:35 a.m. train, and they arrived in Boston at 10:13 a.m., 110 minutes late for the P508 and 63 minutes late for the P512.

Afterward, the disabled locomotive was taken for emergency repairs to the Southampton yard, where it was deemed fit and kept running until it resumed service with the P523. That express train is supposed to skip eight stations between Back Bay and West Natick and make it to Worcester in 80 minutes, about 20 minutes faster than trains making all stops. Instead it died in Newton about 5:30 p.m., this time from a broken crankcase, officials said.

Passenger Lillith Avalon, a Worcester-Boston commuter, said by e-mail: “There were people asking the conductors for water, and there wasn’t any. It was dinner time, and we passengers shared our snacks around with each other as best we could. It was like being stranded on a desert island.’’

Pulled by Train P527, the 5:35 p.m. local, the disabled train reached Worcester in four hours, four minutes, a half hour less than the scheduled time it takes an Amtrak Acela train to go from Boston’s South Station to New York’s Penn Station. The towing train, P527, was itself delayed 90 minutes.

“It was just a nightmare,’’ said Keith Nelson of Framingham, who works in information technology in Boston. He was stuck on P527 while his wife was on the P523. They were supposed to be home by 6 to have dinner with their son. Instead, a neighbor helped the boy with dinner before they arrived, at 8:15.

Nelson said it could have been worse; some passengers had younger children in day-care programs that charge by the minute when late.

Commuter line executives said they thought the locomotive had been sufficiently repaired for evening use, but in a statement they conceded it would have been more prudent to remove it from service or swap it with a locomotive from another train.

The engine for the P523 needs to be in top shape: It propels one of the biggest sets in the system (six double-decker and one single-level coach) on one of the longest rush-hour runs.

“We cannot offer any apology that would justify additional hours of commuting time in one day; we deeply regret the impact that this had on you, your families, and your employers,’’ Hugh J. Kiley Jr., the rail line’s general manager, wrote to riders.

The company said it would review its practices. In an interview, James O’Leary — the former MBTA general manager whose private firm is one of the partners in the commuter rail line’s consortium — also said the decision to reuse the locomotive was a good-faith one made by employees who considered it fit. And he said the company was hamstrung by a lack of spares. It uses 60 of the MBTA’s 82 locomotives on a daily basis, including 36 on South Station lines.

Davey, a former general manager of the commuter line, said the company should have kept more locomotives ready for service.

Customers remained incredulous yesterday.

Steve Adams of Holden was on both of the severely delayed trains Monday, and he spent a combined seven hours sitting on one of the commuter rail’s seats.

Information was in short supply on board the stalled train, but by calling the MBTA’s customer service line, he learned that another train would tow them.

“Part of the frustration any traveler feels is just not knowing timeframes,’’ said Adams. “When your plane gets delayed or your train gets delayed, if you’re told you’re going to be sitting there for 5 minutes or 20 minutes or an hour, there’s a benefit.’’

Jones said she spent more than $300 in each of the last two months on commuter rail passes and parking.

Monday night’s experience made her think that the cost of driving would be worth it.

“That capped it off,’’ she said. “I’m just going to take a break and drive.’’

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Stewart Bishop contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached by e-mail at emoskowitz@globe.com.