Editorial: Red Line woes open door for Fairmount test

If there is any upside to our summer of discontent on the Red Line, perhaps it could be this: Some long-suffering MBTA customers are beating a path to the Fairmount Line. While the commuter rail line offers less frequent departures— there’s an average of one train per hour— it nonetheless offers two or three things that the Red Line sorely lacks: reliability, speed, and relative comfort.

For folks who live within walking distance of stops like Uphams Corner, Four Corners, Talbot Ave., Morton Street, and the new Blue Hill Avenue station, it can be a welcome alternative for the same cost as a subway ride.

It’s true that the Fairmount Line has had on-time performance (OTP) troubles of its own in the past. But, overall, the line has been relatively problem-free compared to other MBTA train operations in the city. In 2018, the Fairmount Line could boast a 96 percent OTP – and that figure was on the rise when we checked last winter.

Keolis, which operates the line, has added about 2,500 additional train trips per year on the Fairmount since 2014. Ridership on the line has seen a growth of more than 200 percent since 2012, much of that due to station stops that have opened in Dorchester and Mattapan.

When the latest new platform at Blue Hill Avenue opened in the spring, Keolis CEO David Scorey noted: “The Fairmount Line has one of Commuter Rail’s best rates of on-time-performance, and with 40 daily trains, Blue Hill Avenue passengers can travel to or from South Station in less than 30 minutes. As ridership grows on this line, Keolis will continue to partner with the communities we serve and market the service to new riders.”

This weekend, a friend in Mattapan who typically rides the Red Line from Ashmont to her job in Cambridge and back, told me that she has started walking to Morton Street station and jumping on the Fairmount Line instead. “It has been,” she said, “amazing. There’s always a seat. It’s on time. I’m at South Station in 15 minutes.”

She then has to contend with huge crowds on the platform at South Station, of course, to continue her journey to Cambridge. That’s still a disaster. But, she reasons, at least the first part of her journey is less stressful and more predictable.

State Sen. Nick Collins has introduced legislation this year that could— if passed— make the Fairmount Line even more viable. He wants it to be fully electrified, an investment that would allow for the Fairmount to transition to more rapid, frequent subway-like service. That’s long been the dream of transit justice activists, who want underserved parts of Dot, Mattapan, and Hyde Park to get a bonafide rapid transit line at long last.

We’re all for it. In the meantime, it would be smart for the MBTA and Keolis to take some more immediate steps to shift more ridership over to the Fairmount stations. Now is the time for a more sustained awareness campaign aimed at getting Dorchester and Mattapan people to give the Fairmount a go.

It’s not a solution to the woes that will face many of us who live in close proximity to the Red Line for weeks to come. But, there are many people who bus or bike to Red Line stations who’d be better off jumping on the commuter rail for the same price, but with a bit more planning on the time factor. It should be a part of the T’s overall strategy to mitigate the aggravations that are now a daily dose of life on the Red Line.

– Bill Forry