Originally posted as The Backstory for CommonWealth Magazine.

Commuter Rail ridership is up. No, it’s down. Actually, it’s held steady. These three statements cannot all be true. And yet, all three are supported by official data collected and published by the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation in recent years. As leaders on Beacon Hill weigh the future of the MBTA, they do not have reliable figures on this most basic measure of the commuter rail’s performance. Instead, they have a choose-your-own-adventure story, where any particular point of view can be supported with official statistics, which vary by as much as 43 percent and are moving in different directions, all while purporting to measure the same thing. There is little agreement on which method of data collection is most accurate, and sharp disagreements about the quality and reliability of each.

Unlike the MBTA subway system, there are no electronic gates or tap-in stanchions on commuter rail trains. Riders buy their fares either ahead of time, in the form of tickets or monthly passes, with their smartphones, or by paying cash to conductors on the trains. This leaves no automatic way of counting the number of riders getting on and off at any given time. To bridge the gap, the T and other transportation officials employ various counting mechanisms to peg commuter rail ridership. But the counts don’t come close to agreeing, either on the level of ridership, or whether it is trending up, trending down, or staying flat.

The first, and most widely cited ridership measure, is the headcount done by conductors as they move through the trains. These headcounts are what the MBTA reports to the National Transit Database and the American Public Transportation Association, according to current and former staff familiar with the process. They are also what the MBTA uses in its capital investment program documents. Headcounts are also what both the media and analysts such as the Pioneer Institute and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation tend to cite when they report that commuter rail ridership has declined. This drop framed the public debate around the last commuter rail contract, which then-incumbent MBCR lost to the current operator Keolis.

But even the T admits that these conductor headcounts aren’t really counts at all. “The daily counts represent conductors’ best estimates,” said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo in an email. The Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which conducts the federally required transportation planning for the Boston region, studied commuter rail ridership in 2012. It characterized the headcounts as “usually rough estimates rather than actual counts” and “inconsistent with figures obtained by other means.” The same study showed that conductor counts produced higher estimates than some other methods of counting. Pesaturo confirms the potential for systematic inaccuracy, writing “as would be expected, the estimates for crowded trains tend to vary greatly between actual counts made and the conductors’ numbers.”

Conductors have also been responsible for the second measurement, so-called “Train Audits,” which tracked how many passengers get on and off at each station in the system. The logistical difficulties of employing this counting method are spelled out in the MPO report: “It is not realistically possible for conductors to record all of this information in addition to their usual responsibilities of collecting tickets and monitoring doors at stops. It can be stated with certainty that actual average ridership is lower than the total indicated by recent Train Audit reports.” Pesaturo says these train audits are not a part of the new commuter rail contract, which began in mid-2014.

Both the Train Audit figures and the headcount measures are reported in the MBTA’s “Ridership and Service Statistics” report (the so-called “Blue Book”). And yet they differ from each other and are moving farther apart. Since 2009, the conductor headcounts have shown a 13 percent drop in daily riders, while the Train Audits show ridership growing by 9 percent. There is no explanation offered in the Blue Book or anywhere else why these two stats, collected by the same conductors, are diverging in this way. But many current and past officials, as well as various written documents, cast aspersions on the accuracy of both statistics. Even so, they remain a regular feature in official MBTA documents, research reports, and media coverage of ridership levels.

Both of these methods are contradicted by fare revenue, which held steady between the fare hikes of 2007 and 2012. This suggests, indirectly, that ridership may have remained steady as well. From 2012 to 2013, fare revenue jumped up 23 percent, almost exactly equal to the size of the average commuter rail fare hike in the same period. MassDOT has considered changing the way it reports ridership numbers to use fare-based data instead of conductor counts, but has not made the switch. But interest in such a switch underscores the strong doubts about the accuracy of conductor headcounts.

Further confusing matters, MBCR, the former commuter rail operator, hired consultants to conduct “peak passenger counts” at core stations. And the MPO’s 2012 report included its own audited count, which it then compared to all these other methods. The results differed wildly, ranging from 104,000 to 150,000 weekday trips. That’s a difference of 43 percent from the low end of the range to the high end. The chart below shows some of the figures they examined, and compares them to those cited in the MBTA’s Blue Book.


Confused? You’re not alone. Even the MBTA itself cannot seem to keep the numbers straight from document to document. A recent, widely circulated report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation cited the T’s capital investment program to make the claim that commuter rail had lost 4.4 million riders, or 11 percent of its ridership, in a single year, from 2012 to 2013. MTF used this figure to argue that commuter rail service is losing riders even as its costs increase – in short, that commuter rail was a bad deal for the state.

But the capital investment documents that show 2012 and 2013 ridership refer to the “2012 edition of the MBTA Ridership and Service Statistics”, a document that does not exist. The two most recent editions of the so-called Blue Book were published in 2010 and 2014, according to Pesaturo and the T’s online document library. The 2014 edition includes data for the time period in question, but it shows a much smaller decline of 800,000 riders. In other words, the capital investment numbers, and, by extension, MTF’s numbers, are relying on inaccurate information sourced to a report that does not exist. Regardless, all these numbers are coming from conductor headcounts, a source on which both the MBTA’s spokesman and the MPO report characterize as mere estimates.

Given the huge variation between the various methods of measuring riders, it’s not clear whether any of the currently available figures can be used to estimate either current ridership or trends over time. Pesaturo reports that the T and Keolis are discussing new ways of counting passenger boardings and exits at every station. “The effort to capture each door of each train at each station will require significant personnel but the information collected will be the most accurate and most detailed ever recorded,” he wrote.

For now, policymakers will only have what has already been collected as they decide how to address the problems facing the region’s transit system. Is commuter rail a drain on the MBTA system, serving a dwindling number of passengers? Or is it a vital system that needs to grow to keep up with commuter demand? Is daily ridership closer to 100,000, or 150,000? It all comes down to which set of numbers one chooses to believe.

Steve Koczela is president of the MassINC Polling Group.