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Commuter rail riders can sneak a peek to snag a seat

Passengers can now check seat availability ahead of time to avoid crowds.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
MBTA GM Steve Poftak rode on the MBTA commuter rail.

As ridership steadily returns to the MBTA’s commuter rail lines, transit officials are giving passengers a heads up about how many seats are likely available on each train. 

The MBTA along with Keolis, the T’s operating partner for the commuter rail, recently announced they’ll display ridership information for all 14 commuter trains.

The hope is that the information will offer insight into typical seat availability so riders can better plan their travel — and make adjustments if need be —according to how much crowding they’re willing to tolerate. The seat availability information is based on rolling ridership counts.

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The new feature comes alongside an uptick in ridership as more people head back to in-person jobs and classes after a pandemic slowdown. It also comes at a time of social distancing mindfulness, with many passengers preferring not to be in close quarters with other travelers if they can avoid it.

“As we continue to see increased ridership return to commuter rail, this new seat availability data will enable riders to have an understanding of what ridership looks like on their particular train and on alternatives,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak. “With all-day frequency now in place at regular and predictable intervals across the network for more of a regional rail system, we hope riders will benefit from both flexible service and enhanced transparency around ridership as they plan their travel.” 

Passengers can check the online train schedule at mbta.com/schedules/commuter-rail for the commuter rail seat availability, which is regularly updated to reflect a trip’s typical ridership based on automated and conductor data from the past 14 to 30 days. The levels are constantly updated, though transit officials noted that the new ridership information is not real-time seat availability. Due to the nature of public transportation, trains may operate at a lighter or fuller capacity than typical on any given day, officials said.

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On the website, small graphics of either one, two, or three “people” indicate how crowded it is on a particular train. One “person” means there are many seats available; two “people” indicates some seats available; while three “people” means it’s a packed train. 

How the T breaks down seat availability

Based on industry standards, the MBTA uses these thresholds to assess seat availability:

  • Many Seats Available: Typically more than 66% of seats are available and distancing is possible (0 to 2 people per row).
  • Some Seats Available: Typically more than 33% of seats remain available and distancing may be possible (about 2 to 3 people per row).
  • Few Seats Available: Typically fewer than 33% of seats are available and distancing is unlikely (about 3 or more people per row).

Transit officials said riders should be mindful that on a given train, some coaches may be more crowded than others. If a coach is too packed for a passenger’s preference, they can opt to move to another less crowded coach. 

Whether the coaches are crowded or empty, T officials are urging passengers to always wear a face-covering while on public transit.

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