PARIS — It’s one of only two candidates in the bid for the Massachusetts commuter rail contract: heavy-hitter Keolis , a $6.6 billion French transit company that has thrown its hat in the ring as the lone challenger to the state’s current commuter rail operator.
Though the company is a major global brand, and runs the commuter rail in Northern Virginia, its bid comes with concerns about the company’s record of punctuality and customer service in France, and relative lack of US experience. Those concerns were magnified last month, when a commuter train operated by Keolis’s parent company derailed outside of Paris, killing six.
Keolis’s record calls into question whether the company, which just submitted its proposal to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority , is capable of taking on the T’s troubled commuter rail system in the largest operating contract in Massachusetts history.
Bernard Tabary, Keolis’s chief executive of international operations, said the company has a strong record of top-notch service.
“We are ensuring that public transport is a choice, and not an obligation, or not a curse,” Tabary said.
The Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company has been operating the T’s 132 commuter rail stations, 14 lines, and 483 daily trains since 2003. Since then, the company has racked up a mixed record: This year, its on-time performance hovers at 96 percent. But at times, punctuality has drawn ire from customers, such as when more than 20 percent of trains were late in the winter of 2011.
Tabary promises that Keolis would do better. He has familiarity with Massachusetts — his daughter graduated from Northeastern University in 2012 — and he said the commuter rail system in the state is ripe for enhanced service.
‘Often, it’s late, like five to 10 minutes.But it’s not . . . catastrophique.’
The company’s strengths, he said during an interview last month at the company’s headquarters, lie in making do with what it has — even if the company is handed old trains and an aging infrastructure that has proven finicky in cold weather.
“Life is full of constraints in general and one has to balance conflicting priorities . . . rather than whine about the insufficient funding of the system,” Tabary said.
Mass Bay officials declined to comment on Keolis but said they were “pleased to reach this milestone” in the bidding process.
Augustine Ubaldi, a railroad engineering expert with Robson Forensic, a safety investigation company, said officials assessing the two contracts will not only seek the cheapest price — they will analyze the company’s safety and punctuality records. That is especially important in Massachusetts, where outdated infrastructure, coupled with extreme weather, can prove challenging.
Keolis will need to prove it can operate safely and reliably on a budget. And with scant experience operating passenger train service in the United States, company officials plan to point to its record of operating transportation systems in Australia, Canada, and Europe — especially SNCF, a French national rail operator, and Keolis’s parent company.
But days after Tabary spoke in his office about his company’s bid, a train crash on their commuter rail killed six people, the country’s deadliest derailment in 25 years, which officials have said was caused by a broken rail switch.
The crash could hamper the company’s ability to convince Massachusetts officials it is fit to take over. Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the T, said the transit authority cannot comment on the process of evaluating proposals from the two companies.
Additionally, the company could be called to answer for its record on customer service and punctuality.
SNCF runs the Greater Paris commuter rail in conjunction with another transit operator, RATP. The two companies have been slammed with criticism for late arrivals, unexplained delays, and overcrowded trains.
In 2012, only 49 percent of SNCF passengers said they were satisfied with the rail service’s on-time performance, according to a survey conducted by a French consumer advocacy group. Last year, Mass Bay’s internal passenger survey showed an 88 percent customer satisfaction rate.
Additionally, almost every line of the commuter rail system operated by SNCF failed to meet on-time performance standards, with about 10 to 15 percent of trains arriving late.
Cedric Musso, a city councilor in a suburb of Paris, said the experience of passengers throughout the commuter rail system is “a real nightmare.”
In some places, he said, delayed trains are so common that employers have refused to hire people who live on commuter rail lines, knowing they will regularly arrive to work late.
For a time, conductors distributed notices to passengers they could give to bosses as a kind of late pass, Musso said. The practice was abandoned when it became a daily occurrence.
“What is absolutely unbelievable is the manner that you are treated — I say we are like animals, because it is so crowded,” Musso said. “And we don’t have any information about the situation.”
Last month, at a crowded Gare du Nord, Paris’s largest train station, passengers were more accepting.
“Often, it’s late, like five to 10 minutes,” said Fred Cani, 27, of Compiègne. “But it’s not . . . catastrophique.”
Keolis is looking to advance its brand in North America. Winning the Massachusetts commuter rail contract would spotlight the company within the US transit industry. It won its only passenger heavy-rail contract in 2009 with Virginia Railway Express, which connects Virginia to Washington, D.C.
That venture has been successful: Between 2008 and 2012, passenger survey results in Virginia improved across the board. The number of passengers who gave As and Bs in overall performance increased from 71 percent to 84 percent. On-time performance jumped by a whopping 38 percentage points, from 47 percent to 85 percent.
But the Virginia Railway Express operates about 30 trains per day, with about 19,000 people riding daily; the Massachusetts commuter rail operates 480 trains, with more than 127,000 passengers per day. And on the MBTA’s 14 commuter rail lines, unlike the two in Virginia, commuter rail operators are responsible for dispatching trains and performing some track signal repairs.
Tabary said the company is prepared to make the jump to a more challenging system.
“Stepping up to mobilize on a big network is something that we know how to do,” he said.
The prospect of dealing with the T’s myriad unions and labor organizations may also prove daunting. The company’s record with unions in the United States is spotty: In Long Beach, Calif., where Keolis operates a paratransit service for disabled people, the company was criticized by Teamster officials, who asserted that the company needed to pay better wages and benefits.
But whether Keolis will have the chance to negotiate with Massachusetts union officials is not yet an issue, as the company prepares to battle against an incumbent with strong ties to the MBTA community. Some in the T and commuter rail sectors have worked for both entities, including Richard A. Davey, the state’s secretary of transportation, though he has recused himself from the contract decision-making process. The contract is expected to be awarded early next year.
It will be hard for a foreign company with few large contracts in the United States to compete.
Ubaldi, the railroad engineering expert, says the ramifications of being a fresh face in the transit operation game can cut both ways.
“People have been known to be xenophobic,” Ubaldi said. “There might be an attitude of, ‘I can’t possibly believe that somebody in Europe can do something better than our home-grown Yankees.’ ”
But, he said, the new act in town can also have appeal.
“Some people might think that the old guy’s gotten a little fat and lazy because they’re the only game in town,” Ubaldi said. “They’re not constrained by, ‘Well, this is the way it’s always been done.’ They can come in and try something very innovative.”Martine Powers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ martinepowers.