T notes: Gearing up for new commuter rail contract

Control board wants transpo secretary on oversight board

THE MBTA IS PREPARING to hire a consulting team to help the agency sort through a number of complicated scenarios for contracting for commuter rail service after the existing deal with Keolis Commuter Services expires in June 2022.

Under the existing contract, the T owns the rails, locomotives, and coaches and Keolis maintains the fleet and provides the commuter rail service. The nearly $2.7 billion deal with Keolis, which began in July 2014, was the state’s largest-ever contract. The next contract is likely to be even bigger.

The new contracting process is complicated by the fact that the T is considering changing the nature of its commuter rail service even as it pursues a new vendor or vendors. The T is doing a rail vision study that could recommend a variety of changes, including having commuter rail trains operate more frequently all day long and electrifying locomotives.

At Monday’s meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, officials said they want the consulting team to explore a variety of contract options.  For example, should the T run the commuter rail service itself or continue to contract the service out? Should there be just one vendor, or one for maintenance, one for infrastructure repairs, and one for operations? Should the contract last seven years or 20-plus years? Should the contractor be just a vendor or should the company be more of a partner to the T? How should the vendor be compensated?

Members of the control board said the consulting team should also explore whether the vendor should supply or contract to provide last-mile connections for commuters between stations and homes or businesses.

The current plan is for the consulting team to be hired in early 2019, complete its contract study by the end of the year, and put out a request for proposals in the summer of 2020.

“I see this procurement as one of the most important things the T does in the next few years,” said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. “It has to be structured around almost a partnership with the T.”

How to govern the T

The Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday informally agreed to recommend to the governor and the Legislature a new governance structure for the MBTA that would be similar to the existing one except the new board would have the state transportation secretary as a member.

The existing control board, which is slated to go out of existence in June 2020, has five members appointed by the governor. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack sits in on most meetings but is not a member of the board.

The control board is preparing an annual report that will recommend to the Legislature how to govern the T after it is gone. The three members present on Monday said they favored a small board made up of gubernatorial appointees who would meet at least every other week at a minimum. The only significant change in structure they mentioned was having the state transportation secretary join the board.

The control board has been gathering public feedback on what it should look like in the future. James Aloisi, a member of TransitMatters and a former secretary of transportation, recently argued for more municipal input on the control board. He said municipal input is crucial as the T tries to improve bus service and needs municipal cooperation on dedicated bus lanes and transit signal priority.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, said the board isn’t recommending a municipal seat on the board, but he said the governor could appoint someone representing municipal interests.

Brian Shortsleeve, a member of the control board, said he wanted to see the momentum built up by the existing control board continue. He said for too long the T has operated in the shadows, largely out of sight. He said he doesn’t want to return to that type of governance.

Technology urged to detect axle overheating

Richard Prone, a retired Amtrak engineer from Duxbury, urged the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday to deploy devices along its commuter rail lines that would alert officials when train axles are overheating.

Prone made the recommendation in response to the derailment of a train on the Fitchburg Line on November 27 near Belmont. Officials said a wheel separated from a single level coach car and derailed the coach standing up.

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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.

“That could have been a catastrophic derailment at the speed it was going,” Prone said during the control board’s public comment period. “Frankly, they got away with one.”

He said he suspected the axle overheated and the wheel just came off. T officials say they are conducting an investigation of the incident and will have more information in January.