By LESLIE FRIDAY/ecoRI News contributor
Everyone driving to Cape Cod for a summer weekend has a strategy. Many leave late Friday night, others at the crack of dawn Saturday and some shift their weekend — all with the goal of “beating the traffic” that can back up for miles leading up to the Sagamore or Bourne bridges.
Motorists now have another option: take the train. The Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority (CCRTA), the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and the state Department of Transportation have teamed up to offer the CapeFLYER, a weekend passenger train service between Boston and Hyannis that will run through Labor Day weekends. Officials pitched the service as a way to lessen traffic congestion, decrease air pollution and boost tourism to the Cape.
The Cape Cod & Hyannis Railroad last serviced the Boston-Cape Cod route 25 years ago. Since then, buses have been the sole mode of inter-city public transportation. This reopened rail service began Memorial Day weekend.
Tom Cahir, an administrator of the CCRTA and former state representative who frequently worked on transportation, said potential travelers have called from all around the United States and Europe.
“I’ve been around for a while and I’ve been involved in hundreds of major initiatives,” he said, “but I’ve never seen a project that has elicited so much interest.”
He hopes that interest will translate into ticket sales, if the pilot program is to continue beyond this summer. Each train carries roughly 1,000 passengers, who pay $35 for round-trip fare from South Station to Hyannis. Tickets, which can be bought online, are cheaper for passengers hopping on further down the line at Middleborough or Buzzards Bay. Once at Hyannis, travelers can bike, rent a car or take local buses to any of the Cape’s 15 towns, or hop a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket.
It will cost nearly $160,000 to operate CapeFLYER during the 15-week pilot period, according to Cahir. The CCRTA has already raised at least $51,000 from organizations that have wrapped advertisement around cars, such as the Steamship Authority, which runs ferries to the Islands. Cahir expects service revenue to cover the rest.
“This is not an MBTA service or expansion,” said Cahir, who has lobbied state officials for years to help launch CapeFLYER. “We’re renting the MBTA equipment and pay for it with CCRTA funds” backed by the federal government.
The MBTA did, however, accelerate its timetable for repairs to rail lines along the South Shore and outfit cars to serve Cape-themed dinner and drinks, according to MBTA spokeswoman Kelly Smith. WiFi is free for passengers, and those who bring bikes can tune-up their rides with tools provided onboard, she said.
There’s so much to do on the train, she said with a laugh, that “you’re going to be tired by the time you get there.”
Choosing CapeFLYER means passengers help reduce air pollution by eliminating another car idling in traffic to cross the Cape Cod Canal. On an average summer weekend, 230,000 vehicles cross the Sagamore Bridge, Smith said. That number jumps to 255,000 on Fourth of July weekend.
Officials hope CapeFLYER will divert at least 1 percent of those cars, or 2,300 drivers, from the road each weekend. Smith estimates that such a change could decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 293 metric tons annually, other greenhouse gases by 2.7 metric tons and gas consumption by nearly 43,000 gallons.
Smith said her friends, many of whom live in the city and don’t own cars, were excited by news of the CapeFLYER. She took a test trip May 18 and was impressed by the route’s scenic views of wooded lands, cranberry bogs and the Cape Cod Canal.
For his part, Cahir was proud to see the first train arrive in Hyannis — a vision he’d awaited for years. “I’m incredibly optimist that we’re going to be successful,” he said.