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Fairmount line setback: No DMUs says MBTA

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Fairmount line setback: No DMUs says MBTA
Transit plans had called for replacing the Fairmount Line’s current model of train with lighter, self-powered Diesel Multiple Units — a change that would have allowed for more frequent service.

Efforts to raise the Fairmount Line commuter rail’s performance to the level of rapid transit suffered a serious setback under the Baker administration. Last year the administration halted MBTA plans to purchase a new kind of train that would have allowed for more frequent service and this fall, an MBTA official said they were unlikely to resume those plans.

An important piece of the Fairmount Line improvements hinged on acquiring diesel multiple unit trains, which were scheduled for rollout in 2018. DMUs are lighter than the line’s current trains, so can stop and start more quickly, thus trimming transit times, said Pamela “Mela” Bush-Miles, chair of Fairmount Indigo Transit Coalition and lead organizer for Greater Four Corners Action Coalition. Each DMU car carries its own power source, allowing for them to be added or removed to suit capacity needs.

So far on the Fairmount Line, three of four planned stations have been added, weekend service provided and fares dropped to subway-level prices. The installment of DMUs would mark one of the final steps in improving the line — which currently runs trains twice an hour during rush hour, compared to the 5-10 minute rush hour run-frequency of the subway lines. The greater frequency and flexibility also was expected to allow the Fairmount line schedule to better match bus schedules, eliminating long waits for transfers.

“DMUs are very crucial to increase frequency,” Bush-Miles said. “Our goal is to make sure we have the same access to transit as other parts of the city,”

Supporters of the DMUs note that the Fairmount Line serves an area where other transit options are scarce. Car ownership rates are low in the predominantly black and Latino areas the line runs through.

“It’s a densely populated area in a community that really depends on transit,” said Rafael Mares, vice president and director of healthy communities and environmental justice for the Conservation Law Foundation.

“You have the Red Line on one side and the Orange Line on the other,” said state Rep. Evandro Carvalho. “The corridor that the Fairmount Line runs through is what some people call a transit desert. The Fairmount Line was supposed to fill that gap.”

MBTA officials have cited low ridership as a reason not to focus funds on improving service on the line. Transit activists argue that the poor service causes the low ridership.

Indefinitely on hold

In 2014, then-Governor Deval Patrick announced plans to acquire 30 DMUs by 2018, and his transportation secretary, Richard Davey, intended to direct $240 million to the purchase. This plan was postponed several times, Mares said.

Now word has trickled out to community members that DMU procurement is not in this year’s budget.

As the MBTA eyes its budget deficits — considering moves like a 10 percent fare hike — DMUs are being put firmly on the backburner.

“It’s kind of a broken promise for the Baker administration to go back and say after all this hard work we’ve done that they’re going to take it out of the budget,” Bush-Miles said.

Rep. Russell Holmes said that at a Sept. 30, 2015 meeting, MBTA Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack revealed that switching to DMUs is more costly than originally imagined.

During the one-and-a-half hour meeting, Pollack told Rep. Holmes, City Councilor Tim McCarthy, Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry and Rep. Dan Cullinane that current DMU technology is not advanced enough to make the plan economically compelling.

Until that meeting, Holmes and fellow elected officials had believed that the new train cars could run on the existing train track.

“[Originally] we were told the technology was more mature than it was. We heard you can take the same track and put DMU’s on the track,” he said.

Not so.

Pollack told Holmes that using DMUs — or Electric Multiple Units, a more widely-produced kind of train car, promoted by some transit activists as an easier-to-procure alternative DMUs — would require changes to the track and the station heights.

The other barrier: When the MBTA put out a bid for DMU procurement, only one company responded. This hampers the agency’s ability to negotiate on price, deliverables and other aspects.

All in all: the project did not look favorable to the cost-beleaguered MBTA, Pollack told the officials. She advised them to drop the cause for now and revisit in a year or two, armed with a more compelling case, Holmes said. In particular, Pollack told him that getting DMUs in part depends on proving a high-level of demand.

She did not express interest in exploring other methods for increasing ride frequency, Holmes added.

Which comes first: The ride or the riders?

A chicken-or-egg debate continues to wage over the Fairmount Line.

According to Holmes, Mares and Bush-Miles, the MBTA has repeatedly questioned why they should invest heavily in a rail line that few people ride. Meanwhile, activists say that few people are able or willing to use a line that lacks so many needed improvements.

Pollack argued that the number of current riders could fit onto one bus, Holmes said.

“[Pollack] was clear to us what we need to do is get ridership up on the line,” he said.

The infrequency of the Fairmount service prevents higher levels of usage and makes it difficult to sync its schedule with other transit lines, also discouraging ridership, Mares said.

Bush-Miles added that ongoing construction of new stations, bridges and switching infrastructure during 2008-2013 further depressed ridership numbers.

Up ahead

Holmes said while he still hopes to find a way to achieve high-frequency rides with minimal need for customizations, this issue will be left for a future battle.

For the moment, his priorities are on two other transit needs: ensuring the construction of Fairmount Line’s Blue Hill Avenue station at Mattapan Square and acquiring needed traffic lights at two intersections. So far, there are no plans to stop the creation of the fourth planned station for the Fairmount Line, but, Holmes cautioned, in this time of scarce MBTA funding, no project is guaranteed.

“All funding is in question,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s not really at risk.”