BOSTON — Steve Beauparlant takes the MBTA's commuter rail five days a week from Salem to Boston and says the train mostly runs on schedule.
"Usually it's pretty close to time -- but when it isn't, it's horrible," the 41-year-old said. "You have no idea when the next train is coming, and when it does, you often can't get a seat."
Beauparlant, who works in Boston, has been riding the Newburyport/Rockport line for about five years and said he's noticed overall performance improve -- though it still can be spotty at peak hours.
"There's plenty of times where I've had to wait for the next train because of overcrowding," he said. "That's OK when it's the subway but not so cool with the commuter rail."
While the trains don't always run on time, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's commuter rail system is coming off it's best stretch of on-schedule performance in years.
On-time performance -- which the T considers to be a train arriving no later than five minutes past schedule -- averaged 90% over the past year for all 14 commuter rail lines lines, according to the MBTA. Average performance for the six months from December 2018 to May 2019 was the best in five years.
During the winter of 2015, when epic snowstorms crippled much of the commuter rail, subway and bus system, only about 39% of the trains arrived on time.
"This has been our best stretch in quite some time," said Rob DiAdamo, the T’s executive director of commuter rail, recently told the MBTA's Fiscal and Management Control Board.
The new data come as the MBTA is reeling in other areas, especially since a pair of subway car derailments on the Red and Green lines earlier this month.
Keolis Commuter Services, the French company that has operated the commuter rail since 2014, attributes its recent record in part to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the MBTA and its parent company to improve the system, as well as a host of reforms pushed through by Gov. Charlie Baker in response to the brutal winter of 2015. Keolis does not operate the subway system.
"We're not where we want to be, and we know there's more work to be done," said Tory Mazzola, a Keolis spokesman. "But the trend is going in the right direction."
Mazzola said the commuter rail has accelerated locomotive repairs, upgraded miles of rail ties, switches and signals, and has added more coaches and conductors to the trains.
"Having a regular level of coaches and locomotives available for service every day used to be a struggle, but that's really turned a corner," he said.
Those investments have reduced the likelihood of mechanical failures, he said, which are "the leading cause of delays on the commuter rail."
Locally, the Newburyport/Rockport line's on-time performance was 91.5% in the past year, according to the MBTA.
That’s compared to February 2015, when the Newburyport/Rockport line had a 22.5% on-time performance.
The Haverhill line reported 92.7% on-time performance between June 2018 and 2019, according to the T, the third-best in the system behind the Greenbush and Fairmount lines.
Commuter rail fare revenue is up, rising 25% between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2018, which ended June 30, according to the T. That suggests increased ridership.
In fiscal 2018 alone, commuter rail fare revenue increased $7.5 million, while revenue from fares for the subway, bus and other MBTA services declined $5.5 million.
T watchers say the latest performance results for the commuter rail shows progress, but there's plenty of room for improvement.
"These numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt," said Greg Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. "You have to look at peak time performance. When you have trains that are running at noon, it's easy to be on time."
Sullivan notes the MBTA has ramped up spending on construction on the commuter rail, from $863 million to more than $2 billion in the past several years.
"There's been a big commitment on the part of the Legislature and Gov. Baker to start to spend a lot of money on renovations," he said. "That's clearly having an impact."
Matt Casale, a staff attorney with the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, points out that a 90% on-time performance still means one out of every 10 trips is not on time.
"For commuters that means getting to work or home late at least one day week," he said. "That's still not acceptable for public transportation system."
Starting next week, commuters will have to dig deeper into their pockets to ride the trains.
Fares on the commuter rail and subway systems will shoot up an average 6% beginning July 1, as the transit agency moves to raise money to make other improvements to its aging system. The increases come over the objections of transit advocates, state lawmakers and others who say the added costs will hurt low-income riders and dampen ridership.
Under the plan, commuter rail prices will vary by region, but the maximum increase for a one-way fare is 75 cents.
Monthly commuter rail pass increase from $5.50 to $27.75, depending on the region. For example, a Zone 7 monthly pass from Haverhill to Boston's North Station will cost $360 a month under the proposed rates, an increase of $23.50.
A Zone 8 monthly pass from Newburyport to Boston will cost $388 a month, up $25. A Zone 3 monthly pass from Salem to Boston increases $16.75 to $261 a month.
Patrick Korianski, a software engineer who also takes the Newburyport/Rockport line to his job in the city, said commuters should be be getting more in return.
"People don't mind paying more if they see a value of it," he said. "If they're asking for more, we should be getting better service, more express trains or something for our money."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.