Keolis exec: T commuter rail shows progress

Ridership and revenue are up; on-time performance improving

WHETHER YOU LIVE in the Worcester area or the North Shore, in Walpole or Weymouth, we tend to have the same thing in mind when thinking about the MBTA’s commuter rail: going to work in Boston, with trains feeding into two urban hubs at North and South Stations. Many still prefer driving, but for a growing number of people in the traffic-dense Boston area, riding the commuter rail certainly beats the bumper-to-bumper trek and $40 daily price tag to park.

But even with commuter rail providing more service than ever before, we at Keolis, which began operating the network for the MBTA in 2014, believe it will become so much more. More than an alternative to getting to work, commuter rail can become an interconnected transit option that is a core service for the residents of the Greater Boston area.

The catastrophic winter of 2015 dropped a record 108 inches of snow on the ground and revealed infrastructure, investment, and maintenance vulnerabilities in Boston’s rail systems. The network’s history of under-investment and neglect was exposed, and served as the impetus for an injection of capital by newly-elected Gov. Charlie Baker and the MBTA. This work continues today, but we have seen progress in key measurable areas.

A decade ago, ridership was in decline at a time when it was increasing in other regions of the country, whereas today the commuter rail is expanding into new communities and performance is trending up. Service levels and revenues are at an all-time high, and approximately 9 out of 10 trains arrive within five minutes of their scheduled time. This was made possible by close collaboration between Keolis and the MBTA to jointly identify areas in need of improvement and execute on strategic investments, all while continuing to deliver service.

Since the winter of 2015, 10 track miles of rail and 200,000 rail ties in critical areas of the network have been replaced, making service more reliable and resilient in varying weather. For instance, these investments have significantly reduced the impact of heat-related speed restrictions during the summer, which delay our passengers. From 2015 to 2017, the network has seen a 97 percent decrease in these heat-related speed restrictions. Further, trains tended to bottleneck in locations with single track. In many of these areas, we have added a second track to allow for more efficient train movements and better on-time performance.

The MBTA invested tens of millions of dollars of capital to refurbish nearly half of the locomotive fleet and grow coach availability. Combined with organizational improvements, such as a shift from a five-day maintenance work week to a seven-day operation, fleet availability for locomotives and coaches is higher than it has ever been. On-time performance for 2016, 2017, and year-to-date 2018 is at 89 percent, 2 points ahead of the 10-year average. These investments also allow for expanded train service. Keolis operated 10,000 more trains in 2017 compared to when we took over operations in 2014.

To match our growth in service, we’re investing in the workforce. In early 2015, commuter rail had approximately 368 conductors and assistant conductors. Today, we have approximately 407. By working collaboratively and toward a mutual goal of investing into the network for our passengers, we’re best able to improve service.

While many transit agencies struggle in the age of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, MBTA commuter rail offers a bright spot and the potential for continued revenue growth for Massachusetts taxpayers. But we need to re-double our efforts to encourage residents to think about commuter rail as an increasingly reliable, convenient, and affordable option to get around the region.

Officials at the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation have already taken major positive steps toward changing this mindset. The agency is actively considering, testing, and expanding successful new ideas. Dedicated bus lanes, increased bike-share opportunities, major investments in the nation’s oldest subway system, and other mobility advancements are regularly being advanced.

Keolis and commuter rail are certainly not excluded in this process, especially considering the role we expect it to play in a future with increasing home prices and opportunities to work remotely. This includes significant investments into what Gov. Baker refers to as the core of the system, such as rail, rail ties, switches, and other critical infrastructure. These investments are important. But another component of his administration’s vision is changing the mindset about how we think about travel, specifically commuter rail travel.

As a step in the right direction, the MBTA and Keolis expanded their partnership in July 2017 to include the first-ever revenue-sharing agreement between a transit agency and a private operator in the United States. A concept borrowed from successful Keolis transit systems in Europe, we have seen this serve as a major driver of positive mobility advancement. It helped turn many European cities, such as Bordeaux, France, from yesterday’s transit to today’s era of interconnected transit.

There are many benefits to this new partnership in Boston. One of the most noticeable benefits is the creation of marketing initiatives designed to increase ridership on trains with extra capacity, particularly those operating on weekends and at off-peak times. Never before has commuter rail deployed demand-creation activities, never mind a dynamic program that targets potential riders for trains with available seats. While this program is still in its early stages, passengers have shown enthusiasm about several of the initiative’s programs.

For instance, we’re testing a pilot program this summer that reduces weekend fares to $10 for unlimited travel with children 11 and under riding for free. In Quebec, Keolis rolled out similar marketing initiatives along with dynamic pricing; the new approach led to 31 percent ridership growth over three years. Quebec’s Orleans Express busses, managed by Keolis, are helping to keep people moving, off the roads and connected to the places they want to go, and throughout Boston we’re seeing similar excitement with this weekend fare pilot.

Our expanded partnership is also improving and transforming the rider experience itself, which helps to encourage people to think differently about commuter rail as the service moves toward interconnected mobility.

At a time in our lives when we expect to conduct almost any transaction seamlessly and electronically, commuter rail conductors process a high number of cash transactions. This year, Keolis deployed a new handheld ticketing device that accepts for the first time onboard payment with a credit card, a feature requested by passengers.

Another critical step forward is the MBTA’s automated fare collection vision. Known as AFC 2.0, this will move the network toward a more digitized, tap-in tap-out system. Easier for passengers, this interconnected vision is similar to a Keolis operation in Lyon, France, that includes bike-sharing, autonomous vehicles, and trains connected via one system that encourages multi-modal transit and helps to solve first mile-last mile challenges.

“There are very few people who are just Hubway [now Blue Bikes], or who are just train riders,” said Chris Osgood, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of streets. He’s right, and we’re proud to help the MBTA advance this vision that encourages more door-to-door mobility and customizable transit solutions.

Another visible enhancement for passengers is our updated Keolis commuter rail app, which, similar to AFC 2.0, helps advance toward an interconnected system. It includes real-time train updates and information on typical seat availability to help riders make choices that fit their schedules and – in some cases – alleviate crowding by understanding train-specific ridership levels.

When we think about commuter rail differently, we think about living differently. Places such as Manchester-by-the-Sea, Framingham, and the vibrant city of Providence come to life in new ways. Whether we shift our transit mindset because of increasing housing prices or a new job in the growing cities around Boston, we will also help to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, both pillars of Keolis’ corporate values. As access increases and the experience continues to improve, we hope more people will consider swapping a day or two of their weekday driving for trains.

Several years ago, we faced similar challenges in Bordeaux, France. Home to 760,000 people, Bordeaux’s transit agency advanced the relationship between a private operator and a public transit authority by delegating the design and operation of the region’s transportation network to Keolis.

The relationship began when Bordeaux was looking for a more innovative and effective approach to its bus services. Keolis won this bid with a proposal to significantly modify the bus routes across 90 percent of the network, a necessity to improve service and access. In 2009, Keolis began this reconfiguration and, following its success, Bordeaux in 2014 awarded Keolis additional services.

 This is a progressive relationship focused on outputs with goals established by the authority and implemented through the brain power of the best and brightest in specific fields – fleet management, IT, marketing, and passenger experience. This allows for both accountability and an entrepreneurial approach by the private operator to improve and increase service, while transforming toward interconnecting mobility.

The Bordeaux results: fare box revenue doubled from 2009 to 2017, light rail on-time performance increased to 95 percent, ridership grew by 60 percent, and ticketless travel was significantly reduced. The approach transformed Bordeaux into a more livable city. Car usage declined from 62 percent to 49 percent and parking spaces were replaced by parks and multi-modal transport hubs. Four-lane streets gave way to pedestrian zones and bike paths, and historic buildings blackened by car emissions retained a healthier shine.

Even while MBTA commuter rail revenue has grown 25 percent over the last three years, there is more work to do to improve service and modernize the experience, and as a result attract more passengers.

Meet the Author

David Scorey

Chief executive officer, Keolis Commuter Services
It’s worth emphasizing that the Bordeaux example is not a suggestion for the way Boston can or should be modeled, but there may be elements from Bordeaux and other Keolis operations that can inspire and help to further improve the MBTA commuter rail service for current passengers, future passengers, and our 2,400 employees who live here in Boston.

David Scorey is chief executive officer for Keolis Commuter Services, the operator of the MBTA commuter rail and a subsidiary of Keolis Group, a global leader in mobility solutions and interconnected transit.