Businesses, residents grapple with rail woes on Fairmount Line

The Fairmount Line has spurred some new development along its route. The Leon Electric building, which hulks over the Uphams Corner station platform, has not yet been unlocked for redevelopment, however. Photo by Chris Lovett

For the business community working to make the Fairmount Indigo Corridor a thriving hub for employers and workers alike, the consistently underperforming rail line that forms the corridor’s spine remains a consistent barrier to attaining that goal.

At a downtown press conference on Tuesday, a partnership of local groups from along the line presented what it called a “Fairmount Indigo Corridor Business and Job Attraction and Retention Strategy,” promoting it as crucial to their mission of increasing local jobs for residents along the corridor and ensuring access to a consistent, reliable source of public transportation.

A Boston Globe story on Sunday found a pattern of failures on the commuter rail line, including regular cancellations resulting in many cases from Fairmount Line trains being repurposed to busier routes that were experiencing problems, leaving Fairmount commuters left in the lurch at the eight stops along the way, sometimes in mid-rush-hour.

The trains running along the 9-mile line were cancelled 18 times in October, according to Keolis spokeswoman Leslie Aun, more than any other commuter rail route.

“There have been more cancellations than usual on the commuter rail system over the past few weeks, for which we apologize,” Aun said in an email. “The primary reason we have cancelled trains has been mechanical issues and federally-mandated safety inspections. This has resulted in a shortage of both coaches and locomotives that has impacted the commuter rail system on both the north and south side.”

In a prepared statement sent to the Reporter on Wednesday Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said, “It is the responsibility of Keolis to ensure enough locomotives and coaches are available to run the entire schedule every day. Period. We are holding Keolis accountable to meet that standard, and we are fining the company when they fail to do so.”

Pollack called the Fairmount line cancellations and reroutes “unacceptable” and said the department will meet with Keolis to evaluate its policy and ensure adequate service across the line.

Characterizing the number of cancellations as an “anomaly,” Aun said Keolis is increasing staff and reducing backlog. Internally, the company will work to ensure that “operational decisions going forward do not have unintended consequences on any community on a consistent basis.”

Efforts to improve life and work along the corridor “has meant first getting increased stations, fast service, and fair fares along the line from Newmarket to Readville,” said Bob Van Meter, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), on Tuesday. “All of you know that fight is not over. Despite significant victories and new investments over the past decade, residents on the corridor are still facing train cancellations...we still have not achieved transit justice.”

Van Meter said 34 organizations have joined the Fairmount Indigo Network over the past two years, and with the Boston Foundation’s support, they have been focused on building a better future for the corridor.

“That better future means high-quality, frequent transit service,” he said. “It means a Fairmount Greenway that can increase opportunities for outdoor activity. It means the work of creating affordable homes along the corridor and ensuring that residents are not displaced, and it means using the arts to enliven the community. It also means supporting business and jobs along the corridor to build the economic prosperity of all the families in the corridor.”

The extent of cancellations were made clear just days after transportation officials briefed Mattapan residents in mid-October on the design of the new Blue Hill Avenue station. In accordance with a 2003 lawsuit about the state’s failure to comply with local-based agreements related to the Big Dig, the MBTA was ordered to fund rail projects, including new Fairmount Line stations. The $26-million Mattapan depot is the last of the bunch.

Mattapan’s elected officials, including state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry and state Reps. Russell Holmes, Dan Cullinane, lobbied in July to include final funding for the station in the state’s five-year budget plan. The station will receive $3 million from the state for preliminary work in 2017 with another $22 million allocated between 2018 and 2021.

At the presentation on Tuesday, Dorcena Forry called the line’s inconsistencies “a real problem. This is an important, important corridor, and we have opportunities to see how we can integrate commercial and job opportunities and access in our community, and really connecting them to downtown and across the state.”

The senator said she had met with the MBTA, and was told that it was in the final phases of the Mattapan station, with design completed and a call for bids to follow soon.

Others at the session singled out the Fairmount Line’s vital roles of supplying reliable residential transportation and attracting businesses eyeing the corridor and hoping to hire local workers.
“We know that those are some of the most underemployed areas of the city,” said Susan Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association and Newmarket Community Partners. “And along the Fairmount Line … we’re pushing so hard for making it more accessible, and more rides and more frequency [so that] these people can get to work easily. They would be good employees, arriving on time, able to get there. It would be just a win-win for everybody.”

Allentza Michel, a Fairmount Indigo Network coordinator, said the MBTA’s consistent assertions about low ridership on the Fairmount Line are self-defeating if the system is not providing consistent service.

“The T has consistently complained that there’s low ridership on the T, although we’ve seen ridership increase by triple over the last three years,” she said. “But part of the work also means that, if you’re trying to increase transit ridership, the last thing you want to do is cancel service and then discourage people from taking the line altogether, because they can’t trust if the train is going to be coming or not, and they’re forced to use other means of transportation.”