Commuter rail firm hit with $804,000 in fines

More than half of penalties for on-time performance issues

Transportation officials on Wednesday hit the state’s commuter rail operator with $804,000 in performance-related fines after just four months on the job.

Keolis, the French company that runs commuter rail in Massachusetts, was hit with $434,000 in penalties for failing to meet on-time performance goals. The fines were announced at a meeting where dubious MassDOT board members asked questions about mechanical and safety issues currently plaguing the commuter rail operator.

Keolis took over operation of the MBTA commuter rail system on July 1 after wresting a $2.7 billion, eight-year contract from the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which had operated the system over the past decade.

Most of the performance issues occurred on rail lines north of Boston. The on-time performance on the Fitchburg Line dropped to 74 percent for July through October 2014 compared to 81 percent for the same period last year; on-time performance on the Rockport Line dropped to 75 percent in 2014 down from 82 percent last year.

Lines running south of Boston had better on-time showings, with more than 90 percent of trains arriving within five minutes of posted arrival times.

Eric Asselin, the rail company’s executive vice president and general manager for North America, said that 25 percent of the delays were due to mechanical issues caused by old equipment that the company inherited from MBCR. “On-time performance will continue to suffer [since the system’s] existing equipment is old,” he said.

MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott gave Keolis’s four-month tenure a rating of “6.5 to 7” on a scale of zero to 10. “Is possible to get a 10 with old equipment?” she asked. “No, it is not.”

Tom Mulligan, Keolis’s Boston-based general manager, added, “It’s just like trying to keep an old car together, it’s very challenging.”

To combat delays, Asselin said state transportation officials need to accelerate the introduction of new locomotives. The MBTA is currently testing 25 new rail cars and expects nearly 100 to be deployed by early 2015.

Asselin said other seasonal factors contributed to delay-causing speed restrictions, including slippery conditions caused by wet leaves on the rails and heat-related restrictions on the Worcester Line.

Commuter rail passengers have been more forgiving of the company’s on-time performance than state officials. According to an October survey of 5,000 customers conducted by Bentley University, 64 percent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the system’s on-time performance. Only 36 percent of passengers had the same views in 2012.

Asselin also indicated the company needs to improve workplace safety. He said many workers failed to observe basic safety protocols, such as wearing hard hats, reflective vests, and other protective gear, which he blamed on attitudes that had become ingrained during the decade that MBCR ran the system.

“This is a big problem,” said Asselin, noting that Keolis intended to institute better education and training for commuter rail managers and work more closely with the system’s labor unions.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Long-time board member Janice Loux indicated a willingness go easy on the company during its “honeymoon phase with the board.” But she said that the board wasn’t sold on the company’s commitment to safety and expected a “rollout” of new programs to address those issues at the company’s next appearance before the board.

“This board took a giant leap to change this contact, it won’t be as nice a meeting next time if you don’t come up with some [changes],”she said. “We want the numbers to improve.”