T lays out ‘rescue plan’ for commuter rail

T lays out ‘rescue plan’ for commuter rail

Gonneville calls for crash program on locomotives

THE MBTA’S CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER on Monday called for hiring outside contractors to return some of the transit agency’s broken-down commuter rail locomotives to service.

Jeffrey Gonneville, who is heading a special task force to address a locomotive shortage, said he plans to hire outside firms to refurbish five locomotives over the next four weeks and is initiating a process to retain other firms to return another six to 12 locomotives to service over the next 12 months. Keolis Commuter Services is already refurbishing five locomotives that are expected to be ready by January.

Gonneville said the additional locomotives are needed to avoid disruptions in service that are being caused by having too many locomotives out of commission. Keolis is supposed to have 67 locomotives available every day or face financial penalties, but in recent weeks the commuter rail operator hasn’t been able to meet the target. Monday was one of Keolis’s better days, with 66 locomotives ready to go.

The T has a fleet of 90 commuter rail locomotives plus another 20 that are in various states of disrepair. Of the 90, 40 are relatively new (1 to 2 years old), but they have been plagued by a series of malfunctions, including defective turbochargers that will ultimately have to be replaced by the manufacturer, General Electric. On March 31, Gonneville said only 27 of the 40 newer locomotives were available for service. He said on Monday that the situation had improved slightly, with 30 of them available.

The remaining 50 locomotives in the fleet are all 20 to 25 years old and past due for major overhauls, Gonneville said. He added that a fifth of the older locomotives are at significant risk of breaking down.

The MBTA awarded Keolis an extra $11 million a year last summer to maintain the 90 locomotives and provide at least 67 for daily service. Since March 1, Keolis has satisfied the 60-locomotive requirement only four times, according to T records. Keolis is fined each time it fails to meet the requirement.

Asked if Keolis is at fault for not maintaining the locomotives properly or whether the T has saddled the commuter rail operator with defective equipment, Gonneville said it was too early for him to say. “At this point I don’t know enough,” he said.

Gonneville said his immediate priority is to bring enough locomotives online to improve service. He said he wants to use outside contractors to bring some of the broken-down locomotives back into service, which would enable Keolis to take some of the trains at significant risk of breaking down out of service.

Steven Poftak, a member of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, called Gonneville’s strategy a “rescue plan” for commuter rail. He said he thought the board had addressed the locomotive situation last summer with the $11 million additional contract award to Keolis but now realizes that didn’t solve the problem. He asked T staff to research how the agency to this point and what changed since the

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the T’s oversight board, called the Keolis contract “suboptimal” while acknowledging failings by the transit agency. “This is a big critical enterprise. We haven’t paid enough attention to it over the last 20 years,” he said.

Meet the Author

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.

Commuter rail accounts for a quarter of the T’s non-debt operating budget but serves only 9 percent of its passengers.

The troubling news on commuter rail came as T staff said they were gearing up to launch a $1 million study examining the T’s long-term vision for commuter rail. The initial phase of the project would examine the market for commuter rail and what types of service would be needed to respond to that market. One potential vision for commuter rail was outlined by the advocacy group TransitMatters in an article for CommonWealth that appeared Monday.