Keolis plays whack-a-mole

Keolis plays whack-a-mole

Even as commuter rail service improves, problems keep popping up

THE PERFORMANCE OF KEOLIS COMMUTER SERVICES is improving on a number of fronts, but there continue to be setbacks that make it appear the MBTA’s commuter rail operator is playing a game of whack-a-mole.

Dan Grabauskas, a consultant hired by the T to oversee improvement at Keolis, reported to the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday that the availability of locomotives and coaches has been holding steady at acceptable levels, train cancellations and terminations were down 19 percent in 2017, and line-by-line efforts to improve performance seem to be working on the Worcester and Haverhill Lines.

But these gains were partially offset by significant delays that surfaced during the extreme cold and snow in early January and by puzzling problems with the commuter rail system’s newest locomotives.

Grabauskas said on-time performance plummeted around January 4 to about 65 percent on a passenger-weighted basis because of snow clearance problems and signal damage caused by storm surge, particularly on the Newburyport and Rockport Lines.

Grabauskas blamed the snow-clearance issues on a “failure of management” at Keolis, and said the management issue was addressed by establishing an emergency command center staffed by Keolis and MBTA employees. The command center and other initiatives grew out of high-level meetings between top Keolis executives and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, he said.

“We were very candid with them. They were very candid with us,” Grabauskas said.

Overall, Keolis has been doing a better job at keeping locomotives and train coaches on the tracks. Still, many of the locomotives are old and prone to breakdowns. The mean miles between locomotive failure is less than 10,000 for most of the system’s older locomotives.

Grabauskas said the commuter rail’s newer locomotives have experienced more failure problems recently. Normally, the mean miles between failure has ranged between 25,000 and 30,000 with the newer locomotives, but in November and December the number fell to less than 20,000. Grabauskas said the downturn in November was due partly to slippery rail conditions caused by falling leaves. He said the cause of the December downturn was harder to pinpoint.

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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.

Overall, Grabauskas said he was not overly concerned. “Nothing has reached my desk that says there is a sense of any real great concern,” he said.

Grabauskas said many of the failures with the newer locomotives were due to automatic safety shutdowns of the engine if the wheels sense slippage for longer than three seconds. He said the shutdowns often result in no delay for passengers and Keolis is even exploring whether the time before shutdown should be extended beyond three seconds.