Keolis chief apologizes for failings, but no solutions offered
A top official at Keolis, the French company that operates the commuter rail system for the MBTA, apologized to riders Thursday but offered no clear reasons for the system’s recent failures. Keolis also announced that full service will not be restored for another month.
In an interview with the Globe, Bernard Tabary, the company’s international chief executive officer, said that passengers are owed an explanation for why commuters suffered through widespread delays and cancellations after the recent snowstorms. But he said he would provide one only after regular, reliable service is restored. The estimated date is now March 30, Keolis said.
“I think that the passengers would be far happier to know that we are working on the recovery, rather than playing Monday morning quarterback for hours . . . while their service isn’t running properly,” Tabary said.
Tabary spoke with the Globe a day after the public learned that Keolis, under fire over poor service that has plagued the system for weeks, had replaced the general manager of its Boston operation, Thomas M. Mulligan, with his deputy, Gerald Francis.
Mulligan had been appointed when Keolis took over the commuter rail service in July after winning an eight-year $2.68 billion contract.
Francis, a former deputy general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, was one of several executives who stepped down amid criticism from the US Senate following a 2009 crash that killed nine people.
A subsequent National Transportation Safety Board report described a lack of safety culture at the Washington agency at the time of the fatal crash.
Francis, who joined Tabary at the interview Thursday, said he was not asked to step down from the Washington Metro authority. And Tabary did not comment on Francis’s past.
“We are comfortable in appointing Gerald in this role and have trust in his ability to lead this company on the path that we have presented this morning to the governor and the MBTA,” he said.
Francis said he is confident that the company will regain the trust of commuters.
“It’s my responsibility, and I will be responsible and accountable for making sure that we are going to progress on with the recovery plan,” he said.
But the two briefly differed after Francis said the company’s preparations for snowy weather had worked. Asked whether riders would agree, Tabary jumped in.
“With us saying the snow emergency plan worked, what we mean there, is we did have a snow emergency, and indeed, it was obviously, looking at the outcome, not strong enough to weather the circumstances, which were exceptional,” he said.
Tabary acknowledged that riders deserved better service. But he would not offer an opinion on whether customers should get refunds for unreliable service, saying only that the decision is up to the MBTA.
“This commuter rail system certainly hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the population, and that, of course, justifies our apologies to the riders for the major inconvenience that they have been suffering from for several weeks,” he said.
Tabary deflected questions about specific problems with management or infrastructure that may have hobbled the commuter rail system, which gives 129,000 rides to people across the region every weekday
“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said. “We are certainly not claiming perfection, and we have to draw lessons from that, but as eager as people are to understand the ‘whys,’ etc, our energy at the moment is totally focused on, ‘Let us make sure we put as much capacity online.’ ”
But he did hint that there were flaws to the company that he had inherited.
“What we’re saying is we are part of the problem,” he said. “We are certainly not the problem that has occurred, just by ourselves.”
One legacy Tabary and Francis addressed is the aging infrastructure provided by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The MBTA purchased 40 new locomotives, but many were sidelined because of mechanical problems. Tabary said that he is keen to get them up and running and improve service, but that rolling out such equipment “is always a bit of a challenge.”
Tabary declined to criticize Mulligan, the man Francis replaced. “I came over here not to assign blame but to mobilize energy positively,” Tabary said.
Keolis Commuter Services, the Boston branch of the company, is still looking for a chief mechanical officer after the last one stepped down in August. But Tabary declined to say whether the lack of leadership is affecting the company’s performance.
“We haven’t yet been able to change this company and its mode of operation, and I guess the current crisis we’re going through will spur and be an accelerator of the change process,” he said.
Though Tabary avoided discussing past problems, he brought up the “upward trend” he said the company was on before the snow derailed it.
He said improved customer service and a better company attitude were starting to pay dividends. The company was on track to running 92 percent of trains on time in January, he said — before the first big storm hit.
Tabary, who lives in Paris, said he arrived in Boston on Monday, after he had spoken with Governor Charlie Baker on the phone. On Thursday morning, Tabary and Eric Asselin, the executive vice president and general manager of Keolis’s North American division, met with Baker to discuss the system’s recovery plan after the commuter rail company’s poor service stranded thousands of commuters this month.
According to the plan, Keolis officials said they will add more staff to key stations and routes to help passengers, double the number of employees to answer customer calls, and make sure their T-Alerts are accurate and timely.
Baker slammed the commuter rail service’s performance last week, but Thursday he said that he was encouraged by Tabary’s plan.
“Let’s face it, the riding public will ultimately determine whether or not we’ve turned a corner here,” Baker said. “But I felt it was a good meeting.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Bernard Tabary. He is the company’s international chief executive officer.