Clash of the commuter rail titans
Should anyone cry a river for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad? The long-time operator of the MBTA’s commuter rail network has objected to the process that appears to have put Keolis, a French company, on track to snatch away a nearly $3 billion dollar deal to run the extensive system.
The MBCR alleges that MBTA officials have not held substantive enough discussions with the company about the bids it offered during the nearly year-long procurement process. How much attention MBCR has actually gotten from the MBTA is only known to the players. However, if anyone in the state of Massachusetts is familiar with the MBCR, which has run the commuter rail system for a decade, it has to be the MBTA and MassDOT. The state transportation department is headed up by none other than Richard Davey, the former head of the MBCR and the MBTA.
The Boston Globe opines that the MBCR has ingested one too many sour grapes over its potential loss of the lucrative contract. Indeed, not only have MBCR officials complained about the process, they have expressed dismay about the failure of Keolis to talk to labor leaders, warned about possible negative signals from the French government, and hinted at lawsuits.
However, the bad blood between the MBCR and Keolis may reflect the competition between their parent companies in France and elsewhere more than concerns about what the French government may or may not say about dealings in Boston. The majority partner of the MBCR is Veolia Transportation, one of France’s largest private sector operators of public transit systems. The firm also operates rail systems in Miami and San Diego.
The French national rail company SNCF owns 70 percent of Keolis, which makes the MBCR’s claim of possible French government naysaying even more eyebrow-raising. Keolis already runs the Virginia Railway Express, a northern Virginia rail line that runs weekday-only commuter service to Washington DC, in addition to other transit networks in California, Florida, and Nevada.
Globe columnist Shirley Leung notes that Keolis unleashed a major lobbying effort, including seeking out advice from Jim Kerasiotes, whose Big Dig history is legendary and not in a good way.
If Keolis does ultimately prevail, it will be a major victory for MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott, who pushed for a new commuter rail deal. Scott has been a comparatively low-key presence on the tumultuous transportation landscape since her arrival at the MBTA at the end of 2012.
The MassDOT board will have to carefully consider the parameters that a new rail operator must meet under a longer initial contractual period of eight years versus five years under the current agreement. In their comments to the Globe, longtime MBTA observers Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and Paul Regan of the MBTA Advisory Board were circumspect about what a Keolis deal might mean. But they both cautioned that the pact could wind up being more expensive for the state if the new firm doesn’t measure up or if the MBCR decides to pursue a lawsuit if the company loses out.
What sometimes gets lost in the details of contracts and political considerations is that the current travel experience on MBTA commuter rail is deplorable. Delays are common, schedules can be problematic, and train restrooms are sometimes sketchy. No matter who gets the contract, it is clear that Massachusetts has to find a better way to run this railroad.
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