Would the Bay State’s commuter rail system really be better off if the MBTA took over its operation rather than paying a private company to run the trains?
Ask passengers sweating in 90-degree-plus temperatures waiting for overcrowded trains — or worse, trains that never come — and the answer might be an exasperated yes. It’s also the refrain of some Democratic politicians who have lately taken to holding up the commuter rail as a parable of the supposed dangers of privatization.
“I fundamentally don’t agree with a core public service like this that we should be privatizing it,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez said at a debate recently. His primary opponent, Bob Massie, expressed similar views.
But the idea is founded on a faulty understanding of the rail system’s history, and the experience of jurisdictions that have tried direct control suggests that it’s no silver bullet. The state can definitely do a better job with commuter rail after its current contract with Keolis expires in 2022. But the goal of better service, not adherence to ideological precepts, should guide the next governor.
Before entertaining calls for the MBTA to take over, a little history is in order. Commuter rail was never run directly by the T and thus was never “privatized.” Rather than taking back control, the T would be operating the commuter rail directly for the first time. As in many cities, Boston’s commuter lines began as private railroads.
The bottom fell out of passenger rail in the 1960s. Then, transit authorities, which earlier had taken over bus and subway lines from bankrupt private companies, started subsidizing commuter rail. Yet only some agencies, like Philadelphia’s, operated the trains themselves; others, like the T, continued to rely on outside firms experienced in rail operations.
In 1987, Amtrak began operating the commuter trains for the MBTA. That ended in 2003, when Amtrak decided against renewing the contract, and the newly formed MBCR picked it up. That company lost its renewal bid to Keolis, an American arm of a French-based company, in 2014. Barely a year into the $2.6 billion contract, total disaster hit with the snowmageddon of 2015. The eight-year contract is now at its midpoint.
The T doesn’t have — and never has had — the in-house ability to operate the commuter lines itself, and dumping the commuter rail system directly into an already overburdened agency risks disruption. It could also raise thorny union issues, probably raising labor costs.
And there’s no reason to expect running the commuter rail in-house would result in better service. The T commuter rail posts 89 percent of trains arriving on time, defined as within 5 minutes of schedule. It’s an improvement from 83 percent in 2015. Comparisons with other cities can by tricky, because agencies use different definitions of “on time,” but there’s no clear link between management structure and performance. Agency-operated New Jersey Transit claims 88 percent of trains arriving less than 6 minutes late, while the outsourced Maryland MARC tracks more broadly as “typically . . . between 87 and 93” percent.
That doesn’t mean current arrangements are perfect, but the choice doesn’t have to be between in-house management and another contract like the current one. Another option would be to offer the next contractor a longer-term deal, to better align the incentives of the contractor and the state and potentially bring in private-sector money for capital investments. The Baker administration says that option is on the table, pending the results of an ongoing planning process to define the commuter rail system’s long-term needs, and the Democratic candidates ought to consider it too.
Whoever is in charge in 2022, though, here’s a suggestion: Since in-house management is an idea that refuses to die, the state should ask the T to submit a plan showing what it would entail. If nothing else, that would clarify for the public the costs and benefits, and bring some specifics to what is now little more than a vague applause line for Democrats.
Doing so might help settle, once and for all, whether such a big change in the commuter rail’s management would actually serve the needs of communities and get passengers to work on time.