Mysterious malady plagues commuter rail wheels

Keolis hasn’t met its coach target since mid-March

JUST AS THE MBTA’S COMMUTER RAIL operator is starting to get a handle on its shortage of working locomotives, the company is facing a mysterious problem with the wheels on its passenger coaches.

Since March 9, Keolis Commuter Services has been unable to meet daily requirements for passenger coach availability, racking up fines in the process. Keolis officials say the wheels on the coaches are the primary culprit; the wheels have been plagued with nicks and hairline fractures that are not dangerous but have to repaired before they worsen and become a safety problem.

Keolis was required to have 362 coaches available for daily service through March 31, and then 366 coaches after that. The commuter rail operator hasn’t met the target since March 9, with coach availability falling to a low of 331 on March 20 before recovering to about 350 more recently. By contrast, Keolis met the passenger coach target every day but one between Jan. 1 and March 9.

David Scorey, the general manager of Keolis, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday that the nicks and hairline fractures on the wheels are not unusual, but he’s seen nothing like what’s happened since mid-March. He estimates 70 coaches were identified with the problem over a two-to-three week period. “We’re trying to figure out why so many in such a short time,” he said.

Scorey speculated that there could be some defect in the metal or that the braking systems being used on the trains could be placing unusual stress on the wheels. He said a technical specialist has been hired to determine the cause.

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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.

While Keolis struggles with its passenger coaches, the company appears to be getting a handle on its locomotive shortage. The company met its requirement to have at least 67 locomotives available on Tuesday through Friday last week, a big improvement over past performance. Keolis and T officials reported on a series of initiatives designed to boost the availability of locomotives by overhauling older engines and repairing defects on 40 newer trains in the fleet.

As temperatures begin to rise, T officials said one other problem has surfaced. The air conditioning units on 45 recently overhauled coaches require modifications. The officials said the repairs are under warranty.