Keolis plagued by train, coach issues

Problems not all firm’s fault, but T officials losing patience

KEOLIS, THE MBTA’S COMMUTER RAIL OPERATOR, is having trouble complying with the maintenance and repair requirements mandated under a six-year, $66 million contract sweetener it received last year.

Last July, the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board voted to give Keolis an extra $11 million more per year to add nine locomotives and 12 coaches to the daily fleet, to maintain the T’s newer locomotives, and to accommodate a series of schedule changes. The cash-strapped company also received $4.3 million under a one-year pilot maintenance program for older locomotives and coaches.

As part of the contract change, Keolis was required to have 67 locomotives and 365 coaches available for daily service or face financial penalties. T officials released figures on Monday indicating Keolis has failed to meet those standards fairly regularly, although a Keolis spokeswoman said those numbers may improve once situations beyond the company’s control are taken into account.

Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s acting general manager and chief administrator, said seven of the T’s new locomotives have suffered turbocharger failures this year. He said those trains are under warranty and repairs will not cost the T anything, but their loss has led to trip cancellations and been disruptive to passengers.

Leslie Aun, a spokeswoman for Keolis, said eight of the new locomotives have suffered turbocharger failures since late last year and 11 have failed since last fall. She said seven of the eight turbochargers that failed more recently have been replaced, and eventually all of the turbochargers will be replaced. She said the turbochargers, which inject oxygen into the engine, were failing because their fan blades were shattering and they were leaking oil into the engine. (This paragraph was corrected after Keolis clarified the number of turbocharger failures and the time-frame in which those failures occurred.)

Shortsleeve said Keolis also lost access to a number of older locomotives because of engine failures. However, he said the commuter rail operator is doing a good job overhauling some of the oldest locomotives. He said the overhaul is running ahead of schedule and the first train under the program should be completed by mid-April.

Keolis has also failed to meet coach availability benchmarks over the last three weeks because of problems with train wheels. Aun said problems with the wheels on 50 coaches were discovered during morning inspections. She said repairs have been hampered because one of Keolis’s two wheel-repair machines is being overhauled and not available.

Steve Poftak, a member of the T Fiscal and Management Control Board, said he is running short of patience with the continued shortage of locomotives and coaches. He said he had hoped to see improvement by now as a result of the new contract enhancements with Keolis, but is not seeing it. “The trend is not positive here,” he said.

Brian Lang, another member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, asked T officials point-blank whose fault it was that coaches were not available in sufficient numbers. Jeff Gonneville, the T’s chief operating officer, said it was Keolis’s responsibility. (Lang said in November that he believed Keolis was preparing to walk away from its contract with the MBTA last year unless it received more money; he said the control board was not in a position to say take it or leave it to the commuter rail operator so the board went along with the $66 million contract hike.)

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the T’s relationship with Keolis is problematic because the transit agency supplies the equipment and Keolis is charged with maintaining and operating it. “The only way we’re going to solve the problem is to work together,” she said.

Keolis is a joint venture of Keolis Rail Services America and the French national rail company SCNF. The T awarded the company an eight-year contract in 2014 for $2.68 billion. Keolis hasn’t operated at a profit yet.