T notes: Pollack slams Keolis on-time performance

TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY STEPHANIE POLLACK took Keolis Commuter Service to task on Monday for failing to improve its on-time performance.

Pollack acknowledged after the meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board that she was frustrated, but her comments indicated she was tired of the never-ending stream of explanations from Keolis for delays. Keolis is the private contractor that runs commuter rail service for the T.

David Scorey, the general manager of Keolis, presented the control board with data on on-time performance for the system as a whole. Since July, weekly on-time commuter rail train performance has bounced around above and below the target level of 90 percent, dipping to 83 percent last week.  For passengers, on-time performance has ranged between 80 and 90 percent, dipping to 74 percent last week. (Passenger on-time performance is lower because more passengers ride the trains that tend to be delayed more often.)

Scorey said the system’s on-time performance problems are concentrated primarily with three lines – Fitchburg, Haverhill, and Worcester. He said Fitchburg’s on-time performance is 83.3 percent over the last year, but has shown marked improvement over the last six months. He said Haverhill’s 84.4 percent on-time performance over the last year is a bit of an anomaly because a relatively small number of trains run on the line and a problem with one of them can snowball quickly.

The Worcester Line’s on-time performance for the past year is 78 percent. Scorey said it feels like every time one problem on the Worcester line is addressed (new stations, schedule adjustments) another one pops up. The latest is electrical interference with the commuter rail’s signal system, Scorey said. The interference prompts the system to revert to its default setting, which requires trains to slow down and even stop until the problem is corrected.

Pollack said her analysis of the data indicates the problem isn’t with individual lines but with the system as a whole. She said a handful of little-used lines – the Greenbush and Fairmount lines – routinely do well on on-time performance, while the rest struggle. “This doesn’t seem like its line specific,” she said.

Pollack also said she was disappointed to see on-time performance during September on all lines was 88.6 percent. She said September should have been one of Keolis’s strongest months because weather is ideal – no snow and no wet leaves on tracks.

Locomotive availability was a problem for Keolis earlier this year, but that has been largely rectified through a series of initiatives to bring broken-down trains back into service. Several members of the control board wanted to know why locomotive improvement wasn’t translating into improved on-time performance. Scorey, backed up by Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, said locomotives are continuing to break down. He said the addition of more locomotives has reduced cancellations and should allow his company to bring some of the vehicles in for routine service, which should cut down on breakdowns.

Asked after the meeting about the harsh tone of her comments, Pollack said: “I think it is frustrating that it has been so difficult to obtain consistent service. There have been problems that have been identified – the locomotive shortage, problems on specific lines – and the company has done a good job of changing things up. But once we solve one problem there seems to be another. As several board members pointed out, we’re consistently getting the required number of coaches out on the system in the morning, which we assumed would lead to better on-time performance. But the on-time performance isn’t showing improvement. It’s fair to say there’s some frustration there.”

Commuter rail on-time performance year-to-date is 89 percent, the same level it was at last year. The 10-year average for on-time performance is 87 percent, even though a decade ago 10 percent fewer trains were running, according to one official familiar with the data.

Control board votes to stream its meetings

The Fiscal and Management Control Board voted unanimously on Monday to launch a six-month pilot project to make its meetings available to the public at an annual cost of no more than $100,000.

The decision came after board members tired of foot-dragging by staff. Owen Kane, the MBTA’s legal counsel, said he was still doing research on legal and cost issues, but estimated the cost to livestream and make video available for viewing would be $3,000 to $4,000 a meeting, or between $105,000 and $160,000 a year.

Kane said the Massachusetts Gaming Commission does a good job providing video of its meetings. He said the commission made an initial capital investment of $30,000 in equipment and spends $3,000 to $5,000 per meeting. He said the T already has spent $175,000 on a meeting room equipped with camera and audio equipment, but would need to spend additional money hiring people to run the equipment and may have to spend additional money to make the recordings fully accessible to all viewers. He said his personal preference would be that the board not pursue livestreaming of its meetings.

But board members disagreed. Brian Shortsleeve said Kane needed to work at cost-cutting. Monica Tibbitts-Nutt said the board has to do something to make its meetings more available to the public. “We can do this,” said Steven Poftak. Brian Lang put the matter to a vote and it passed unanimously.

Kadish appointed to T retirement board

Steven Kadish, Gov. Charlie Baker’s former chief of staff, was appointed to the MBTA Retirement Board on Monday .

Kadish, who left state government in July because he had “run out of gas,” will replace Michael Heffernan, who is now serving as Baker’s secretary of administration and finance.

Brian Shortsleeve, who nominated Kadish, said pension costs are the fastest growing item in the MBTA budget and the pension fund had a $1 billion unfunded liability at the end of 2016.

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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.

Odds & Ends

The Wollaston Red Line station will close for 20 months starting December 2017 for a major rebuild … Jeffrey Gonneville, the deputy general manager of the T, said a signal problem near Davis Station that has plagued the Red Line for the last several weeks has been corrected… In the never-ending battle over privatization at the T, officials said Paul Revere Transportation’s contract to drive and maintain buses on various Winthrop routes is paying dividends. According to the presentation, Paul Revere’s bus maintenance cost per revenue hour averaged $17 for July and August, compared to $45 at unionized garages for all of fiscal 2017, which ended June 30.

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