Keolis readies for rail service switch

Company and T officials hope for smooth transition this week

Keolis Commuter Services will take over the state’s commuter rail system on July 1.
Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe
Keolis Commuter Services will take over the state’s commuter rail system on July 1.

When Keolis Commuter Services takes over the reins of the state’s commuter rail system on Tuesday, customers can expect a few changes: A customer service hotline. A new Twitter handle with alerts on delays and service interruptions. New maps for passengers, with a larger typeface and a Keolis logo stamped on the back.

For the average commuter, little will feel different. Keolis officials say their primary goal for the switchover will be an unremarkable inaugural week.

The T’s desires for the service hand-off are clear: No hiccups.


“A smooth and seamless transition — that’s what I’m expecting to see,” said Beverly A. Scott, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. “What I want for our customers is for them to feel as though there was not a missing of a beat.”

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The significant changes that Keolis promised when it won the bid to take over the commuter rail — more punctual service, new technology, and a better relationship with the T — will take more time, Keolis officials say.

“Now that we can see July 1 closing in, we’re ready to put our boots on and go to work,” said Keolis’s deputy general manager, Gerald C. Francis.

Keolis, an international transit company, will earn $2.68 billion to manage the state’s commuter rail system for eight years, with a possible four-year contract extension. The company is replacing the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., or MBCR, which ran the system for 11 years.

In the six months since Keolis won the bid, the company has overcome what Francis called its most challenging hurdle: negotiating new contracts with the unions.


Earlier this year, union officials expressed skepticism Keolis would be able to iron out contracts before July 1. But agreements have been reached with all the unions, through 2016.

But there are still other transition-related tasks that Keolis must tackle: setting up new payroll, e-mail, and incident tracking systems; getting acquainted with the existing technology for dispatching and train control; and hiring top-level managers.

Keolis spokesman Mac Daniel said the company has hired a general manager, though the company has not yet announced the person’s name. Many of the company’s hires have come from outside the state, or even the country — a departure from MBCR, which was staffed largely by Massachusetts locals who previously worked for the T.

And though MBCR waged a legal battle against the new contract, spokesman Scott Farmelant said the company has done its best to prime its successor for the hand-off.

“It’s been a very professional transition,” Farmelant said.


In the days before the takeover, Keolis staffers have been poring over train schedules and on-time performance records to identify consistently tardy trains or inefficient time gaps to suggest changes to T officials who control the schedules.

The company’s efforts to improve punctuality will also benefit from timing, T general manager Scott said. Recently purchased commuter rail cars and 40 new locomotives will be put into operation within the next year, which should mean fewer breakdowns.

Ronan Coatanea, Keolis’s new director of customer service, is also strategizing on how to make the commuter rail more pleasant for passengers. He requested MBCR’s collection of thousands of customer complaints from 2013.

He’s read 600 so far, and they’re a gold mine, he said.

“It helps us to be able to know what was happening here, especially because we’re coming from places all around the world,” said Coatanea, who previously worked for the French national railroad, which owns Keolis. “With their words, we know what is their experience, what was wrong, and what was good. . . . We know the entire story of one year of activity.”

So far, the company has only offered a broad vision for long-term changes. An app is scheduled to debut in early July with basic schedule information.

Eventually, Coatanea said, it will provide real-time information about delays, a wake-up call to alert snoozing passengers, and a customer complaint reporting tool that would help commuter rail staff respond more quickly to concerns.

“Right now, it’s just: get on the train, hope it’s on time, hope it’s clean, hope you get a seat,” Daniel said. “And Keolis . . . honestly, really wants to try and change that, so that customers play a greater role in improving service.”

A new wayfinding system — also down the road — will be placed on busy commuter rail platforms, introducing easier-to-read signs that provide guidance to confused travelers, especially those who don’t speak English.

The project is modeled after a similar Keolis endeavor on a railway system in India.

Such projects could be the mark of a changing relationship between the T and its commuter rail operator. Historically, the contractor has been expected to manage day-to-day logistics; the T made the decisions on big-picture issues such as scheduling, ticketing, tech innovations, and station designs.

Now, officials from both agencies say, they’re looking to work in tandem, with the T playing a bigger role in day-to-day operations, and Keolis offering insight on innovations.

“There will be a different working relationship,” Scott said. “That’s not an indictment of the prior contractor. That’s more of us saying, yes, we have a contractor, but at the same time we want to make sure the contractor and us are in very, very deep communication.”


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Railway union is wary of transition

Martine Powers can be reached at