Extend the Keolis contract another 4 years

During uncertain times, stability at the T is needed

KEOLIS’S CONTRACT to operate commuter rail for the MBTA expires in 2022, with two options to extend it for two years. It takes about two years to solicit bids and decide among them, so the Fiscal Management and Control Board must decide now whether to renew or rebid. We believe that the contract should be renewed for four years. As we explain in more detail below, Keolis has earned the opportunity to manage the commuter rail system for another four years and the MBTA will benefit from the institutional experience the company brings as commuter rail transitions into regional rail.

While we recognize the importance of ensuring best value by encouraging competition for all public contracts, stability is also an important factor to take into account. Stability in a time of transformation and change can be a good thing. With all the other changes it has to manage, the MBTA and its customers at this juncture will be best served by maintaining the same operator.

The MBTA and its riders will also benefit from Keolis’s experience in other cities as the T transforms commuter rail into a regional rail system with trains running on electricity and providing service every 15 minutes. The management here in Boston can draw upon the experience and best-practices of the company’s worldwide business in the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and China. Some Keolis executives have even helped oversee similar transformations in those other markets. That’s invaluable experience the MBTA will need in its transition.

Part of the idea behind regional rail is to broaden its reach, attracting customers beyond those who commute to and from downtown at rush hour. Regional rail will also make the commuter rail system more financially sustainable and maximize the level of service for the investment made.

Keolis is already heading in this direction. Over the past six years, the company has improved the commuter rail’s maintenance, improving the reliability of coaches and locomotives and allowing the system to run 10,000 more trains a year. Keolis has built a state-of-the-art locomotive simulator to improve engineer training and passenger safety as well as an emergency management center, which they operate with the MBTA. Keolis also recently drew on its global experience to install RailBAM, a system that monitors ball bearings to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure. It’s a system that has never been used in American commuter rail before. This sort of expertise in international best practices is exactly the mindset needed to implement modern regional rail.

Keolis is also replacing older systems with modern technology, including more accurate time clocks that allow employees to clock in using their phones during the COVID-19 pandemic and an on-time-performance app that employees can use in real time. The company has also launched a new performance management system that digitally tracks train performance, collecting data that can be used to improve on-time performance and an emergency management app for assigning critical tasks.

The transformation of commuter rail to regional rail will involve significant capital expenditure on new vehicles and infrastructure such as pantograph wires and high-level stations. The successful management of the double tracking project on the Franklin Line demonstrates Keolis’s ability to deliver capital projects on time and within budget, which is a convincing argument for Keolis to take on more of these projects in-house thereby freeing up the T for other capital delivery projects.

There have been challenges, and there is still much work to be done. On-time performance, particularly on the Franklin Line, has struggled. Nonetheless, the situation has improved during Keolis’s tenure. We do not believe that a new contractor will be able to accomplish that goal any faster. There have also been staffing challenges; we urge Keolis to ensure that there are adequate employees available to ensure that trains run reliably.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Jarred Johnson

CEO and development director, TransitMatters
The MBTA has many challenges ahead, and much work to do. The transition to regional rail is not an option; it is a necessity if we are going to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that supports regional growth. A lengthy, disruptive procurement process for a new commuter rail operator will distract from this goal. Keolis has performed well under difficult circumstances. The Fiscal and Management Control Board and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack must extend the company’s contract for four years, removing an obstacle to begin in earnest the long overdue modernization of our suburban rail system.

Matt Robare, Jarred Johnson, and Ethan Finlan all work with the advocacy group TransitMatters. Robare is a member, Johnson is the chief operating officer, and Finlan leads advocacy on regional rail.