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.

Keolis is not without its own major issues. Concerns have been raised about Keolis’s diversity record in France, which bears scrutiny, especially since the MBTA has a checkered history in its dealings with minority employees. Holocaust survivors criticized the company’s Virginia award because of the SNCF’s role in transporting Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

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.

–GABRIELLE GURLEY  

BEACON HILL

The commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families meets with Northbridge school officials on allegations that officials neglected school reports of child abuse, the Telegram & Gazette reports. Here’s the Globe story on the Northbridge allegations. Attorney General Martha Coakley rolls out a plan to split DCF’s investigative arm from the rest of the department.

Sen. Barry Finegold confirms he is working on a legislative response to the Supreme Judicial Court decision providing access to parole for juveniles who commit heinous crimes and are sentenced to life in prison, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh will tap acting police commissioner William Evans for the permanent appointment. In an embarrassing blooper, Walsh’s communications team hurried out a press release after word of the appointment leaked that cribs verbatim the quote praising Evans that former mayor Tom Menino offered up in his statement at the time Evans was made acting commish. Joyce Linehan, the woman who played the role of kingmaker in Massachusetts politics, joins the Walsh administration as director of policy, CommonWealth reports. The Herald describes Walsh’s early appointments as loyal and diverse; there’s still no plan for what to do with Menino’s BRA, though.

Bernie Lynch, the long-time city manager in Lowell, stuns local officials by announcing he will step down in March, the Sun reports.

Health care and pension costs continue to vex local officials as cities and towns statewide spent 19 percent more on health insurance premiums and 30 percent more on retirement expenses last year even though the workforce in cities and towns shrank by 6 percent.

Keller@Large says new Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is somewhat in the local-pol mold of his predecessors, Thomas Menino and Ray Flynn, in having a focus on basic city services rather than the grand world scheme.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera hires an acting fire chief and an economic development director, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

CASINOS

Easton selectmen and officials from the proposed slots facility at the Raynham Park dog track agree on a mitigation deal that pays the town $362,000 a year for the next 20 years as well as money for road improvements and a new police cruiser to deal with the expected traffic increase.

Steve Wynn‘s Everett casino bid offers few details on environmental cleanup efforts at the former Monsanto chemical site.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

A bill restoring unemployment benefits begins moving in the Senate with some bipartisan support, CNN reports.

Sen. Rand Paul doesn’t think Edward Snowden should get a lifetime prison sentence, and that stance earns him a slap from the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

ELECTIONS

As the Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates scramble for money, most are raising it from people who can vote for them. But some are looking outside the state’s borders, reports Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group in an article for CommonWealth.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The economy is improving, says Boston Fed chief Eric Rosengren, but not so fast that we should dial back stimulus efforts that have aided the recovery.

EDUCATION

Governing explores the educational divide between Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch.

HEALTH CARE

WBUR continues its analysis of birth data with an explanation for why Cesarean section rates differ markedly at Boston-area hospitals.

TRANSPORTATION

The MBTA expands commuter rail service between Worcester and Boston, the Telegram & Gazette reports.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Rush Limbaugh is having none of this talk about the polar vortex triggering record, life-threatening low temperatures in parts of the country, calling it a “liberal media hoax.”

The Fairhaven Board of Health approved a noise mitigation plan from the owner of the town’s controversial wind turbines. The plan will shut down one of the turbines on nights that there are adverse weather conditions.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Three police officials in Seabrook, New Hampshire, are caught on video from 2009 committing alleged acts of brutality against a prisoner, NECN reports.

In a disturbing tale of bystander indifference, no one came to the aid of a man with cerebral palsy who was beaten with his own cane in an apparently random attack in the busway at Andrew Square station in South Boston late Saturday night. MBTA police have arrested a suspect based on a tip following release of surveillance video of the attack.

MEDIA

Meet the Author

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.

The 16-year-old son of Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has gone missing in Brookline.

The Boston Globe announced the hiring of peerless Vatican reporter John Allen to cover the Catholic church amid the resurgent interest kindled by Pope Francis. Editor Brian McGrory said in a statement the paper is also exploring “the very real possibility of launching a free-standing publication devoted to Catholicism.”