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Waiting for the train: Further delays for South Coast Rail

In my upbeat and too-credulous February 22, 2024 post about the status and progress of the South Coast Rail (SCR) project, which will return passenger rail service between Boston and the cities of Fall River and New Bedford for the first time in more than 60 years, I wrote: “Completion of the project’s Phase 1 is imminent.” At the time, I also wrote that on September 28, 2023 the MBTA’s chief operating officer, Ryan Coholan, “reported to the agency board that South Coast Rail service would begin sometime in the summer of 2024.”

It turns out that MBTA officials jumped the gun in making their specific and overly optimistic prediction. At two June 13 public meetings called on short notice in Fall River and New Bedford, and in a subsequent MBTA press release, the transportation agency’s General Manager and CEO Phillip Eng announced a further delay until spring 2025 for the initiation of paid passenger South Coast Rail service. Just a year ago this month, Stephanie Pollack, then Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, had stated that service would begin sometime later in 2023. By September, though, chief operating officer Colohan had told the MBTA Board that service would instead commence in the summer of 2024. And in late November, the agency distributed a “Year End 2023” video presentation reiterating that “we anticipate passenger service to start in summer 2024.”

On April 10, I attended a well-attended public meeting in Fall River when another team of MBTA officials somewhat sheepishly reported that the project finish line had been moved ahead again, to an unspecified future date. Ben Berke, a reporter for The Public’s Radio, in an April 12, 2024 story revealed that an MBTA consultant in late December 2023 had filed a report stating that “internal schedules showed South Coast Rail’s opening date had already ‘slipped to October 2024.'” Berke reported in the same article that SCR’s Executive Project Manager up until that time, Jennifer Tabakin, “no longer works for the MBTA.”

Last month, the MBTA General Manager/CEO decided to step in, apparently to staunch the agency’s eroding credibility about the project’s status. “After a review of the project,” according to the June 14 MBTA press release, “General Manager Eng determined that new project leadership was needed to ensure the success and safety of the project. The timeline adjustment to spring 2025 for passengers allows for more resources and attention to make South Coast Rail reliable on the first day of service and beyond. Nationally, these projects are highly specialized and complex, requiring specific expertise, with the system testing phase being one of the most challenging aspects to ensure seamless integration of all components.”

At the June 13 Fall River and New Bedford public meetings, South Coast Rail Program Executive Karen Antion, representing the “new project leadership” replacing Jennifer Tabakin, offered several reasons for the project’s continually slipping timeline. The necessary and rigorous “testing phase” mentioned by Eng headed her list. “Safety is our top priority for the project,” said Antion. “Test trains, which start on Monday [June 17], will travel up to 79 miles per hour,” she added. At the same time, she urged “our Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River neighbors to stay clear of track areas and abide by all warning lights and signs at grade crossings. Together, we can finish the testing period as safely as possible.”

At the previous April 10 public meeting I attended in Fall River, Jean Fox, SCR’s director of community engagement, said that Eng was bringing in new management in part to oversee the testing program. 

“They’re really going in and making sure everything we did up until now is good. They want to verify what we’ve done,” Fox said, according to Ben Berke’s story after that April meeting. “If there’s any missing pieces that somehow were overlooked, they want to make sure those pieces are filled in.”

At that time, Antion had not yet been assigned oversight of the South Coast Rail project. She has apparently been transferred to that position only recently. “She was chosen because she has expertise in the signaling systems that are now being tested, Eng said,” reported Grace Ferguson of the New Bedford Light in her account of the June 13 New Bedford public meeting. “She previously led other signal installation and testing projects at the agency.” 

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General Manager Eng’s recent public appearances and comments signaled his understanding of the frustration and downright anger among local officials and the public in Fall River, New Bedford, and elsewhere in southeastern Massachusetts about the delays and shifting explanations surrounding the completion of the South Rail Project. The credibility of the agency and its previous managers concerning aspects of the project, especially regarding the initiation of passenger service, has become seriously frayed, as projected completion dates have been pushed ahead several times.

One outspoken critic of the MBTA’s wobbly communications concerning the South Coast Rail project is Ken Fiola, executive vice president of Bristol County Economic Development Consultants. “I think if nothing else the MBTA owes this region and this city and the residents of this city an apology — an apology for misleading the entire region with false promises and deadlines,” Fiola scolded Eng at the June 13 Fall River public meeting, according to a report by Ken Medeiros of the Fall River Herald News. “We’ve been working on this for 30-plus years,” Fiola added, according to Medeiros’s story. “I guess another year isn’t going to kill us, but it does have an impact on things we’re doing locally.” 

Eng was hired by the MBTA in March 2023 to help the sprawling, troubled regional agency get back on track in every respect. His forty-year career as a public transportation administrator includes stints as President of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Long Island Rail Road and Interim President of New York City Transit. His recent appearances in Fall River and New Bedford, and his comments about the project’s status, suggest that he is a leader who won’t hang his subordinates out to dry. So far, he has made clear that the buck stops at his desk. Such an approach may boost agency morale. Whether Eng’s direct and conspicuous involvement in the South Coast Rail project will keep it on track has yet to be determined.

Looking ahead: Safety testing, fares, schedules, MBTA finances
South Coast Rail Phase 1 map, depicting new construction and renovation from Middleborough Station (current terminus of MBTA commuter rail service) to new East Taunton Station, Myricks Junction, Fall River Secondary Line, and New Bedford Main Line. (MBTA)

As noted, MBTA officials at their June 13 meetings and in an accompanying Power Point presentation identified several reasons for the postponement of South Coast Rail “revenue service”—that is, regularly scheduled service for paying riders—including safety testing and uncompleted construction of some elements of the project. In addition, the agency provided additional information about likely fares for the new rail service, but has remained noncommittal about scheduling, including frequency of trains and weekend service.

Safety testing: In its June 14 press release, the MBTA provided detailed descriptions, dense with acronyms and slogan-like titles, to describe the system safety testing required by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which will begin in August and is projected for completion in January 2025.  “Once all components—stations, layover facilities, tracks, ATC [Automatic Trail Control], and the PTC [Positive Train Control] system—are built, tested, and approved,” the agency explains, “the project will move to the final phase of ‘New Start’ implementation.” The FRA-mandated “New Start” process involves personnel training and certification, implementation of a System Safety Program, and “a robust Quality Assurance and Quality Control Program.” At the same time, as test trains are already traversing the routes, the agency is attempting to educate “pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists” using the roads in the regions served by South Coast Rail about the presence and nature of the signage, road markings, lighting, and other new infrastructure at the 26 surface grade crossings along the rail lines.

From July 2, 2024 MassDOT email titled “MBTA South Coast Rail Construction and Testing Update”

Construction and equipment:  The MBTA reports that four locomotives have been overhauled and are available to serve the route and that “16 modern bi-level coaches have been acquired to serve passengers on South Coast Rail.” The Fall River, Freetown, Middleborough, and Church Street (North New Bedford) stations are complete and ready for service. The New Bedford station, the agency states, “is 97% finished and expected to be fully complete by July 2024.”

The infrastructure laggard is the East Taunton Station, a key element of the SCR system. The station is located adjacent to the intersection of two major regional highways, Route 24 and Route 140, and just north of Myrick’s Junction, where SCR’s main line divides into two branches, to Fall River and New Bedford. Expected to accommodate a high volume of activity, the East Taunton station, unlike the other stations in the SCR system, has separate north/south tracks, requiring stairways, ramps, a pedestrian bridge, and an elevator, so passengers can access the passenger platform between the tracks. The relative complexity of these features has resulted in construction delays, MBTA reports. As of June 14, the East Taunton station is reported to be 75% complete at present, with completion expected in August.

Construction on the East Taunton platform and view of its ramp entrance to the platform, April 2024.
Construction on the new East Taunton station and platform elevators, April 2024. (MBTA)

Fares and schedules: Until recently, the MBTA had been circumspect about announcing expected fares for SCR service. The agency’s existing commuter rail structure, as explained in its June 14 press release, “is organized into zones ranging from 1A (the core metro area [Boston]) to 10 as well as Interzone fares for trips that do not enter Zone 1A.” As a result, “the MBTA has determined that the fare structure for all South Coast Rail stations will be priced in Zone 8. This means that passengers will pay a full fare of $12.15 and a reduced fare [for seniors, students, the disabled, etc.] of $6.”

At Eng’s June 13 Fall River meeting, according to a Fall River Herald News report, the MBTA General Manager “would not say what the daily train schedule would look like and would not guarantee weekend service.” Some SCR ridership projections were developed before the COVID pandemic, which dramatically reduced ridership throughout the MBTA system. Ridership of the agency’s existing commuter rail service has recovered somewhat more strongly than it has for other MBTA services, such as subways and buses. But eastern Massachusetts work and commuting patterns have evolved considerably since substantial SCR work began in 2019 and the COVID pandemic arrived in 2020.

In an initial projection of South Coast Rail’s projected service schedule, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) offered the following scenario:

The MBTA plans to operate three morning peak trains and three evening peak trains to both New Bedford and Fall River. There will be up to six morning and evening trains to Taunton and Middleborough because all the trains will pass through these communities. During off-peak periods, three trains will likely operate on a 3-3 ½ hour frequency. However, these schedules are subject to change as the MBTA begins operations and continues to assess the Commuter Rail needs for this region. [Emphasis added]

As this post is written, Dan Medeiros of the Fall River Herald News reports that MBTA officials have committed to providing weekend service to all SCR stations. Medeiros, who has diligently chronicled the SCR project at every step, offers this quote from MBTA communications manager May Bingaman in his July 2 story:

“Seeing as … South Coast Rail is an extension of the Middleborough line commuter rail service, on which weekend service is already scheduled and offered, it is not a question of whether weekend service will be provided, but rather at what levels. … We will be sure to share the finalized details as soon as they’re available.”

MBTA finances: The MBTA Board of Directors  recently approved an operating budget for the 2025 fiscal year exceeding $3-billion, partly by applying $307-million from accumulated federal pandemic funds. At the same time, the agency projects a $700-million deficit for the next fiscal year to maintain current operations and services, according to a recent 10 Boston News article.  “Something has to change in the next 13 months, or else we’re going to be looking at massive service cuts and real stagnation in our economy and our society,” said MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Brian Kane, according to that article.

General Manager Eng in his recent comments said that the current phase of the South Coast Rail project remains within the $1.1-billion budget for which MBTA and MassDOT had secured funds when project construction began in 2019. If South Coast Rail service has in fact been initiated by this time next year, as the MBTA now predicts, the agency will still face a stiff fundamental challenge: Will South Coast Rail attract ridership and generate revenue sufficient to sustain the financial and operational viability of this new regional transportation option?

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In any event, Eng’s June 13 presentation includes a table, titled “Milestone Schedule,” specifying May 2025 as the “Start of Service” date for South Coast Rail.

“Milestone Schedule” from June 13, 2024 MBTA presentation, “South Coast Rail Public Meeting with MBTA General Manager Phil Eng.” (MBTA, https://cdn.mbta.com/sites/default/files/2024-06/2024-06-13-SCR-Meeting-Presentation-Accessible_0.pdf)