It was 5:30 a.m. when we arrived at the starting line: the middle of an empty Union Station in Worcester.

One team — a reporter and commuter — was about to board the train to Boston. The other reporter-commuter duo was ready to carpool. The race was set, and the stakes were high: Last one to South Station would buy breakfast.

The race, albeit silly, was our way of witnessing firsthand the daily experience of workers who travel between Boston and Worcester. Although the cities are the two largest in New England and just about 47 miles apart, commuters say the trip in no way reflects their proximity.

“It’s not as simple as it was described to me,” said Onica Washington-Moore, who drives to her job as a fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital because she said the train takes too long.

The first leg

Neither of our journeys began particularly smoothly.

The commuter rail platform at Union Station is under construction — which meant a rather unpleasant walk for the roughly two dozen people who boarded the train on this bitterly cold, windy March morning.

Tracy O’Connell Novick was our commuter that took the train. After she boarded and found a seat at a table, she pulled out her laptop to check the news of the day.

Tracy O’Connell Novick, left, speaks with reporter Bob Seay aboard the Framingham-Worcester Commuter Rail train on March 21, 2024.
GBH News

“Once I step onto the train, I realize my shoulders relax because it’s no longer my problem, and I’m able to work. So I can just do my stuff here,” Tracy said. “It’s actually somebody else’s job to get us there.”

As the horn blared and the train rolled away through the darkness, Onica, who said yes to our carpool plan, began the drive to Boston in her Subaru Crosstrek.

Onica Washington-Moore welcomes reporter Sam Turken (not pictured) into her car for a commute from Worcester to Boston on March 21, 2024.
GBH News

Her trip usually takes her about an hour, as long as she leaves Worcester by 6 a.m. If she doesn’t, she’ll end up stuck in gridlock traffic that can take more than two hours to move through.

As Onica jumped on the Mass Pike this morning, everything seemed fine until it became clear there was an accident. Police cars and ambulances drove past her, traffic built up.

“I’m just thinking about, like I can hop off [the pike],” she said, noting sometimes she takes Route 9 if there are accidents.

The break of dawn

As the sun rose, the commuter rail train steadily meandered through forests in between stops around MetroWest where more passengers boarded. Meanwhile, Onica — who likes to listen to news programming, J-pop and hits from the ’80s and ’90s — decided to stay on the pike, clearing the traffic after passing the accident.

Driving hasn’t always been Onica’s preferred method of traveling to Boston. In fact, when she decided to move from South Carolina to Massachusetts a few years ago, the commuter rail was a big reason why. Worcester was about halfway from her job in Boston and her husband’s in Amherst. She had read online that the commuter rail would be an easy way for her to travel to and from Boston.

For a while, Onica relied on an express train to Boston in the morning and another back to Worcester in the afternoon. Both trains made limited stops between Worcester and West Natick, keeping the entire trip each way to just one hour.

But last fall, the MBTA and its commuter rail operator Keolis phased out the express service, adding more stops to meet demand around MetroWest. Suddenly, the roundtrip between Worcester and Boston took an extra hour. Onica said she had no choice but to start driving more often, which isn’t an ideal option either.

She has to leave her house in the morning by 6 a.m. to avoid rush hour traffic on the Mass Pike. And she’s concerned about the additional wear and tear on her car and the extra carbon emissions involved with driving to Boston.

“But also I have to do what I need to do to survive,” she said. “It was very premature for them to scrap the express train.”

Onica Washington-Moore, left, drives with reporter Sam Turken on I-90 into Boston on March 21, 2024.
GBH News

Tracy has continued to rely on the commuter rail because her family shares one car. But the end of the express service has also significantly impacted her schedule. She used to take a 6:30 a.m. express train that ensured she’d arrive at her office by 8 a.m. Now, she needs to wake up an hour earlier to catch the 5:45 a.m. train.

“There are worse ways of spending three hours of your life. Like sitting on the pike would be worse,” she said. “But we are also the second largest city in New England. So I don’t feel like it’s unreasonable to say once a day it should take an hour to get from Worcester to Boston.”

The MBTA and Keolis announced Thursday that this spring, they will bring back the Worcester express train to Boston in the morning. However, there will not be an express service back to Worcester in the afternoon.

The final stretch

The Downtown Boston skyline gradually became more visible as Onica hit the 50-minute mark of her drive, passing the Boston Landing commuter rail station.

The train had finished making the stops up to West Natick but was struggling to keep up.

Onica said she would consider taking the commuter rail again if the trip didn’t take so long and better accommodated her work schedule. It’d also help if the train was more affordable, she said.

Each roundtrip drive, including tolls and parking near MGH, costs her about $22. The commuter rail, by comparison, is about $24.50.

Passengers board the Framingham-Worcester commuter rail train on March 21, 2024.
GBH News

Worcester to Boston travelers note that the commuter rail will only become more important as the state begins its Allston Multimodal Project in the next few years. The nearly $2 billion plan will involve replacing a section of the pike that’s currently elevated above Allston. Although the project is supposed to increase transit connectivity and access to the Charles River, traffic is expected to worsen during construction.

“What is that mitigation plan gonna be?” asked Jarred Johnson, executive director of the advocacy group Transit Matters. “How are we going to ensure that the Worcester [commuter rail] line is open virtually the entire time through construction.”

The MBTA and Keolis have an opportunity to start answering those questions and satisfying people in Worcester that take the commuter rail to Boston.

In a recent release, Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty argued the locality is an alternative for people who can’t afford to live in Boston and “efficient and multiple express trains to Boston is a must if the City of Worcester will continue to grow and prosper.”

During their board meeting Thursday, MBTA officials said the express service this spring will begin May 20. The train will leave Worcester’s Union Station at 7:40 a.m. and arrive at Boston’s South Station at 8:45 a.m.

Tracy said that timing will not accommodate her schedule, so she’ll have to continue waking up in the wee hours of the morning to take the 5:45 a.m. train — the same 5:45 a.m. train that can’t keep up with a car.

Our carpool duo arrived in Onica’s Subaru at a bustling South Station in just under an hour.

It was nearly another 30 minutes before our train team rolled in.

So if you can convince a friend or colleague to race you there, pick the car if you want a complimentary croissant and coffee.

Updated: April 25, 2024
This story was updated to include the planned resumption of a morning express train between Worcester and Boston. The MBTA and Keolis said the new schedule will take effect on May 20.