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Railway union is wary of transition

More than three months after winning the contract to run the state’s commuter rail system, Keolis Commuter Services has appointed an interim general manager but still does not have permanent leadership in place, a shortcoming that has fanned concerns from union representatives that the transition process is moving too slowly.

Keolis, a relative newcomer to the American transit market, was selected in January as the winner of the state’s eight-year, $2.68 billion commuter rail contract and is scheduled to take over the system on July 1. By all accounts, the six-month transition period makes for a tight deadline, and Keolis officials say they are racing to be ready.

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On Monday, the company said that Gerald Francis, who directed a similar takeover in management at San Francisco’s Caltrain, will be the temporary head of the Massachusetts commuter rail system while Keolis officials seek a long-term appointee.

“We expect to have a permanent general manager well before July 1,” said Keolis spokeswoman Leslie Aun.

Keolis has also hired Scott Treece of the Virginia Railway Express as transportation officer, but is still seeking a chief mechanical officer and engineer.

In a statement earlier this month, Keolis spokesman Alan Eisner said several of the managers listed in the company’s proposal to run the system had made “preliminary commitments” with the transit company, but would not be taking those roles for personal reasons. “Certain unforeseen issues have arisen,” Eisner wrote. “The [MBTA’s request for proposals] anticipated there would be changes in personnel, for medical and other emergent lifestyle reasons.”

But union representatives say they are worried about the lack of leadership at the top of the company that is set to become their new employer.

In a March 6 letter, Joseph A. English, general chairman of the local chapter of the American Railway and Airway Supervisors Association Lodge 585, wrote to MBTA General Manager Beverly A. Scott that members had “serious concern” that they had heard little from their new employer, and requested that they be told the names of those who would be in charge of the operation.

Under the terms of its contract with the T, Keolis must uphold the current contract with commuter rail workers, but failure to complete the takeover of the commuter rail operations by July 1 could mean interruptions in workers’ payroll and health benefits. Supervisory staff remain uncertain whether their jobs will continue to exist, or whether Keolis will bring in replacements.

“To date, we have had no meetings with any member of the Keolis senior management team that will be directly responsible for the management of the service. In fact, as of today, we do not even know the identity of these senior managers,” English wrote.

On Friday, Keolis held a meeting with union representatives. In a letter to the Transport Workers Union, Steve Townsend, president of Keolis America, attempted to reassure workers that the company was actively setting up a hiring system and a benefits program.

“We sincerely seek your input and cooperation in this very complex effort,” Townsend wrote. “We are confident that better service can be provided to the citizens of Boston, one that will also provide more satisfying jobs for the employees.”

Keolis’s ability to take over the system by July 1 could be threatened by a civil suit against the T by Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., the current operator of the commuter rail. In a request filed in Suffolk Superior Court earlier this month, MBCR asked that a judge halt the takeover, require the T to redo the bidding process, or allow MBCR to continue running the system. A hearing has been scheduled for Friday.

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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