WGBH News Focus: The MBTA

'Tourist Train' Status: Delayed

By Sean Corcoran

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April 27, 2012


hyannis train station

Planners believe a summer weekend train from Boston to Hyannis would run in the black. (Sean Corcoran/WGBH)

 
HYANNIS, Mass. — Summer on the Cape means beaches, boating and sun. It's a boon for Cape businesses — but a hassle for everyone getting there, with traffic from Braintree to Bourne and beyond. An influx of tourists each summer doubles the Cape's population to 215,000.
 
Transportation officials expected to launch a new weekend train service from Boston to the Cape this summer to help ease that congestion. But with the MBTA facing its most significant budget crises in its history, the service is now on hold — and not because it would cost the MBTA money. It wouldn't. But with fare hikes and budget cuts on the table, launching a new train service to the Cape could be a political blunder.

 


 
A man, a plan
 
The plan was to spare weekend visitors from traffic by having a commuter rail train leave South Station bound for Hyannis on Friday evenings, Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. Passing through Middleboro Station, it would travel over Cape Cod's most-forgotten bridge: a railroad bridge in Bourne. Today, it's used only a few times a week by a seasonal dinner train, as well as by what's called the "trash train," because it hauls away the Cape's garbage.
 
This new service is known informally as the "tourist train." It would travel along state-owned tracks before arriving at the Hyannis Train Station and Transportation Center, where buses idle in the parking lot before heading to Boston … in the same traffic as cars.
 
On an upper floor of the transportation center is the office of Tom Cahir, the head of Cape Cod's transit authority and the person who first proposed the tourist train. He said a recent study concluded there's a demand for rail to the Cape. With the bridges handling 130,000 vehicles per day, people are looking for a car-free option.
 
"Quite frankly," Cahir said, "our plan was to have the plan commence Memorial Day weekend this year, 2012, and we told the folks doing the study that was our objective. And the guys came back to us with a report saying we could perhaps meet that objective."
 
All the necessary maintenance and repairs could be completed to meet the deadline and run the train safely this summer. But the report raised concerns about the MBTA's financial troubles — concerns Cahir shared.
 
"It does appear as though this service ... would be an expansion of the MBTA," he said, "at least that's how I would look at it, and I think the citizens of Massachusetts would look at it: ''What is the MBTA going to Cape Cod for when they haven't gone to Fall River and New Bedford yet, and they have all this debt and are raising fares?'"
 
To spare the MBTA any public perception problems, Cahir decided to put off the tourist train until next year, and in the interim to move forward with the maintenance issues the study identified.
 
"I should be very clear," Cahir said. "The MBTA never said, 'Tom, this might appear like expansion.' This is just from my knowledge, and I don't want to create any further headaches for them."
 
Budget politics
 
Politically, launching a weekend service during the MBTA's budget crises could be a mistake. But the irony is … the tourist train wouldn't cost the cash-strapped agency any money. Cape transit officials said no new equipment would be needed, and they estimated the train would attract more than 16,000 riders each summer at a fare of $20 each way. Combine that with parking revenue along the route and some federal dollars, and Cahir said the service will pay for itself.
 
"So it really would be a windfall for the MBTA rather than an expense," Cahir said.
 
Acting MBTA general manager Jonathan Davis said he relied on the judgment of Cape Cod officials as to when to begin the service. "However, we have the reality of having a budget deficit and we need to concentrate on what we're providing today. But I also think we should look at providing ways to expand service," he said.
 
Try again next year
 
Cahir was optimistic the tourist train will begin Memorial Day weekend 2013. But still, with projections indicating the service will bring more than $1 million in new tourist spending to the Cape, Chamber of Commerce director Wendy Northcross told WGBH News that she was disappointed with the delay.
 
"It is doubling frustrating when you look at the delays we're potentially suffering from bridge construction and bridge repairs and Massachusetts Department of Transportation repairs," she said. "It would just be nice to have that alternative to put up for the people, that you can get here without your car."
 
Cape transportation officials also are considering launching service between Hyannis to New York City in the coming years. By easing traffic congestion and including bicycle transportation on the trains, both plans are designed with the environment in mind. With train service, supporters say, there's no reason for a Cape Cod vacation to begin and end in traffic.
 

Read CCRTA's report on the feasibility of seasonal rail service

WGBH NEWS FOCUS: THE MBTA

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Love it, like it or lump it, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority touches nearly everyone's lives in eastern Mass. And it's in financial crisis, with newly announced fare hikes not enough to cover next year's projected $100 million budget deficit. WGBH News features special focus coverage of the tracks and troubles of our public transit system.

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