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Will Commuters Ever Go Back to Commuter Trains?

No form of public transportation has lost more riders in the coronavirus crisis than the trains that carry suburban workers to urban jobs. Will they ever recover?
A MARC train car sits empty in Baltimore in April. Nationwide, commuter rail systems have taken a big hit as commuters stayed home.
A MARC train car sits empty in Baltimore in April. Nationwide, commuter rail systems have taken a big hit as commuters stayed home.Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg

Last year, the fiscal management control board of MBTA, Boston’s regional transit agency, faced a critical decision. With area commuters enduring the worst car traffic in the United States, would the board greenlight a multi-billion-dollar revamp of its traditional commuter rail network, expanding it to offer bi-directional “regional rail” service every 15 minutes? Doing so would be a paradigm shift for a network that was designed to fulfill the more modest goal of bringing suburban commuters into the city in the morning and back out again in the evening.

The answer was yes. In November 2019, the MBTA’s board approved the commuter rail transformation project. Speaking after the vote, the board’s chair said that it was time to “provid[e] more aggressive service for the region … in order to decongest the roadway systems.” MBTA would still have to find upwards of $10 billion, but transit advocates were thrilled to envision a network that could accommodate Bostonians ill served by traditional commuter rail, such as workers traveling to suburban job centers, or parents scrambling to get to a midday doctor’s appointment.