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February 2012

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Raise fares or cut service or ...? More 'new normal' considerations for transit agencies


After noting ridership declines during the height of the recession, many transit agencies once are again seeing passenger counts rise. An ever-so-slightly falling unemployment rate has helped boost ridership as more people are commuting again. In addition, many transit agencies are ramping up their marketing and customer service efforts, as Progressive Railroading details in its February cover story.

But some agencies still are feeling the recession's lingering effects as they deal with state budget cuts and lower sales tax revenue. So even though more riders are choosing to use public transit, some agencies are faced with cutting service, raising fares or both — and that could swiftly reverse any ridership gains that have occurred during the past year.

Case in point: the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which in 2011 registered its highest passenger count since 2008, is facing a $161 million fiscal-year 2013 budget deficit. To help close the gap, MBTA has proposed fare increases of between 35 percent and 45 percent, and “some very deep service cuts,” says General Manager Jonathan Davies.

“This is very difficult for us to propose in light of continuing to see ridership grow throughout our system,” he says.

The agency is mulling two scenarios: a higher fare increase but fewer service reductions, or more service cuts but a lower fare hike. Agency officials are encouraging the public to weigh in on the proposals via public hearings, mail, email and phone.

“We understand that we’re not dealing with statistics — we’re dealing with real people and some people may be left without any transit or a reduced level of public transportation, but we’re also faced with the stark reality of not having enough revenue to pay for all the service we’re providing today,” he says.

If MBTA proceeds with its proposed fare increases and service reductions, agency officials believe they’ll lose between 34 million and 64 million annual trips, which equates to a 9 percent to 17 percent reduction in ridership, Davies says.

Damage control
But there are ways to minimize a ridership hit in the face of service cuts and fare hikes. Officials at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) have learned that firsthand as they’ve implemented both during the past couple of years. Still, ridership has remained flat, says Chief Communications Officer Matt Raymond.

“We’re focusing a lot on efficiency, and we’re doing it pretty well,” he says. “We’re lowering costs but still providing the same number of boardings.”

That’s because the agency has been “pretty aggressive” managing its rail and bus services and aligning them with demand, Raymond adds.

For example, agency service planners are examining rail and bus schedules to determine where they can offer more service while keeping expenses about the same. In November, LACMTA began offering higher-frequency late-night service on several subway and light-rail lines by splitting consists in half. The move enabled the agency to double service from 7 p.m. to midnight without adding trains or rail cars. LACMTA began posting ridership increases almost instantly, with late-night ridership spiking 60 percent, says Raymond.

“We’re constantly evaluating ridership and looking at ways to improve it,” he says. “It’s always an adjustment process.”

Ridership shift
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) is adjusting service to better meet demand, too. In April 2010, the agency cut rail and bus service by 12 percent. Now, they’re starting to bring some of that service back — but the schedules won’t mimic those from two years ago, says Media Relations Manager Mary McCahon.

“Through our analysis, we’re finding that people are riding in different locations than they used to,” she says. “There are different needs.”

For example, GCRTA’s rail lines — which makes up only 20 percent of the agency’s system — are gaining passengers at a higher clip than the bus system. That’s partly due to a large-scale Inner Belt bridge construction project under way. But in addition, Cleveland’s business landscape is changing, with more companies moving out of the downtown core and into area suburbs, says McCahon. In the coming months, the agency plans to reduce rail headways from 12 minutes to 8 minutes during peak periods to address the growing demand for rail service.

GCRTA also will expand service on its trolley system — which currently operates from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday — to nights and weekends to serve a new casino scheduled to open in Cleveland this summer.

With capacity still available on the rail side, GCRTA is hoping to capitalize on the opportunities a shifting ridership base might offer.  

“It’s never a dull moment around here trying to figure out what’s happening with our ridership,” says McCahon. “It’s an evolving process.”

GCRTA and many other agencies will work to adapt right along with changing ridership patterns and passengers’ needs. Tweaking service to better meet demand is one aspect; at the same time, many transit agencies are taking a more marketing-based approach to gain new passengers and retain existing ones. To learn more about the various strategies being used, check out Progressive Railroading’s February cover story.

Angela Cotey


Browse articles on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority ridership

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