MBTA praised for cold-weather performance

Commuter rail under fire; Baker rival gives Keolis failing grade

THE STATE’S TOP TRANSPORTATION OFFICIAL on Monday gave the MBTA’s subway and bus operations high grades for rebounding in the wake of last Thursday’s winter storm, but said commuter rail service did not meet expectations.

“The goal obviously is to get back as quickly as possible to running the services our riders need and deserve. Other than commuter rail, that is exactly what happened on Friday,” said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. “The day of the storm is never going to be perfect. Things happen. They happen on our highways, too. But the next day people should be able to commute. We were able to do that on the Red and the Orange and the Blue Lines. Commuter rail was not, so next time we have to do better on that.”

Pollack spoke after a meeting where members of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board universally praised management and employees for the job they did during the snowstorm on Thursday and the ongoing frigid temperatures. “It’s really quite an accomplishment,” said Steve Poftak, vice chair of the board.

According to the T’s performance dashboard, on-time performance declined most dramatically on commuter rail, falling from 91 percent last Wednesday to 50 percent on Thursday (the day of the storm) and then 34 percent the day after the storm. Subway on-time performance fell from 86 percent the day before the storm to 77 percent the day of the storm and 73 percent the day after. Bus service actually rose from 64 percent the day before the storm to 67 percent the day of the storm and then dropped back to 64 percent on Friday.

The MBTA’s performance is likely to become a hot topic in the upcoming race for governor. Jay Gonzalez, a Democrat running for governor, showed up at the control board on Monday and told the directors that commuter rail’s performance on Friday deserved a “failing grade.” He said the Baker administration’s response has been to blame Keolis Commuter Services, the private company running the T’s commuter rail system, when the reality is the state needs to up its investment in transit. “Commuters deserve better,” he said.

T General Manager Luis Ramirez and his deputy manager, Jeffrey Gonneville, suggested the problems with commuter rail service on Friday were related to the way Keolis was operating its emergency operations center. The officials said Keolis didn’t have command staff from all facets of its operations together in the center, hindering communication. Both officials said they have been working with Keolis over the last three to four days to address problems.

Ramirez said the commuter rail performance on Friday was not acceptable. “Some of the things that occurred on Friday could have been avoided and that’s why we spent a lot of time with Keolis over the last few days, making sure we’re addressing those issues and making sure we have the correct car counts in the morning to start service and to remain in that position throughout the day,” he said.

Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for Keolis, acknowledged the storm, with its combination of historically low temperatures, sustained high winds, heavy snow, and tidal surges, was very challenging. “Our team worked tirelessly both before and throughout the storm to battle these conditions and keep passengers moving,” he said in a statement. “We deployed the plans we had prepared in advance; however, we’re reviewing with the MBTA where we can improve to deliver a better response to severe weather.”

Looking forward, Mazzola said, Keolis is working to resolve extensive damage to signaling systems and switches. “Specifically, the historic tidal surge caused track circuit failures on the Newburyport and Rockport Lines, which is likely to continue impacting service on this route for approximately the next 24 hours,” he said. “We expect to operate an increasingly resilient and punctual service over the coming days.”

Gonneville, in a presentation to the T board, praised MBTA employees for working under extremely challenging conditions over the past 10 days. “This is the greatest test we’ve had since the winter of 2015,” he said.

He said the T did a good job of protecting electrical equipment from flood damage at the Aquarium stop on the Blue Line. He said the T had no power outages and no significant injuries to riders or employees. He said snow was cleared effectively from platforms, bus stops, and parking lots. Due to the extreme cold, Gonneville said, T tracks broke in 20 locations, but only one break, on the Orange Line, caused a service disruption.

Gonneville said the T’s biggest problems were on the commuter rail. Other problems he cited included a shortage of bus and subway operators, inaccurate clocks on platforms telling riders when the next train should arrive, and breakdowns of Orange and Red Line cars that are 30 to 40 years old.

The deputy general manager said the Orange Line needs 96 cars to provide regular service. On Saturday morning, he said, the Orange Line had only 60 cars in service. On Monday morning, the Orange Line was expected to have 84 cars in service, but he said mechanics managed to get 96 vehicles back on the tracks.

Pollack seized on the Orange Line turnaround as an example of how the T has improved dramatically since the winter of 2015, when the system shut down for several days in the face of record snowfalls.

“For me, the way I grade them is not whether things break but whether it disrupts the service to our customers,” she said. “As the deputy general manager said, 20 rails broke, one resulted in a disruption to our customers. We were down to 60 Orange Line trains this weekend because the trains are old and they break. But this morning, with the Monday morning rush, every one of those Orange Line trains got fixed over the weekend. That’s what I grade on, when we’re not providing customers with the service they deserve.”

Pollack called the quick turnaround of the Orange Line cars “an extraordinary accomplishment.”

Gonzalez, in his comments to the T board, said he rode the T with a passenger who complained that a countdown clock on the Orange Line said a train would arrive in 1 minute. After 20 minutes of waiting, he said, the woman gave up and took an Uber.

Gonneville said the problem with the countdown clocks arose when T managers began rerouting trains and taking them off regular schedules to accommodate the challenging conditions. He said a design flaw made it impossible for the clock system to accurately track train arrival times.

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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.

Pollack stressed that the design clocks failed because of a technology problem, not because the T was trying to mislead its customers.  “We didn’t lie to our passengers,” she said. “This was not about being disingenuous.”

Ramirez told reporters most transit vehicles are not designed to operate under prolonged frigid conditions. “In the case of the weather we’ve been facing the last seven to 10 days, it is record weather,” he said. “Look, I can’t predict when my pipes are going to burst in my own house, given this type of weather. All the infrastuctures have a lot of stress during these times and we do our best to keep them running and we make investments to make them more resilient.”