Keolis Commuter Services, the operator of the MBTA's commuter rail, is trying to avoid more than $430,000 in fines for late or canceled trains, citing a clause in its contract that would excuse the company for subpar service caused by "severe weather," a company spokesman said Monday.
Only about 35 percent of commuter rail trains ran on time in February, according to preliminary MBTA data released Monday, a performance that left thousands of commuters stranded and frazzled the nerves of tens of thousands more. Keolis, which is fined for each late or canceled train, was assessed a $434,425 penalty, an MBTA spokesman said.
But Keolis has asked the T to waive the penalties in letters it has sent to the MBTA after each of four major snowstorms that slammed the state, starting with the Jan. 27 blizzard. The company argues that the "severity of the issues that we were facing" should get it off the hook for the fines, said Leslie Aun, a spokeswoman for Keolis.
The company's effort to escape the fines drew immediate disapproval from the State House, where Tim Buckley, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker, said the governor expects Keolis to "focus its energy on restoring full service to the commuter rail as soon as possible."
In the past, MBTA officials have characterized the agency's eight-year, $2.68 billion agreement with Keolis as a "no-excuses" contract that holds the company to strict performance standards.
But the contract stipulates that Keolis can be excused for subpar service if "an act of God, lightning, severe weather, explosion, flood, landslide, or earthquake" makes commuter rail equipment and property "unusable or substantially unusable."
Aun insisted Keolis is not asking for special treatment.
"We're not making excuses," she said. "We're following the rules of our contract, and this is something you would find in any contract with any transit authority anywhere."
Aun contended that the rapid succession of storms that produced the second-snowiest winter in Boston history should trigger the clause.
"Obviously, we don't like to deliver service that isn't reliable and doesn't operate as it should, and everybody was working very hard to restore service, but this was a historic snowfall," she said. "If 100 inches had been spread out from October to April as they often usually are, we would have had a chance to recover."
The MBTA has not told Keolis officials whether this winter's snowstorms would allow the company to avoid the fines. Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, wrote in an e-mail that the MBTA repeatedly told Keolis that "improving customer service should be their sole focus, and that technical matters pertaining to the operating agreement can be discussed at a more appropriate time."
In the letters Keolis Commuter Services has sent the T, dated Jan. 28, Feb. 3, Feb. 9, and Feb. 18, the company's former general manager, Thomas M. Mulligan, requested that the MBTA waive the penalties.
Keolis has already paid about $3.2 million in fines to the MBTA since it took over the commuter service in July, Pesaturo said. About half of those penalties came from late trains.
The MBTA also fines Keolis for dirty trains, inadequate snow and ice removal, and understaffing among other things. Pesaturo said the authority has yet to calculate those fines for February.
The company has dramatically pared down its schedule, in an effort to limit the number of trains that would be late or canceled, and Mulligan was replaced last week by his deputy, Gerald Francis.
A top official for the French company apologized to riders Thursday, and the company released a plan pledging to return to normal schedules by March 30. As of Friday, the company said it was operating at about 80 percent of its normal weekday service. The company also announced it would add new trains to specific lines nearly every week until full service is restored.
State Representative Bill Straus, cochairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation, said Keolis should not be allowed to avoid the fines. He said he believes the public agrees with him.
The company bid on the contract knowing that the region has harsh winters and large snow accumulations. “Clearly, winters with 100 inches of snow are not the norm, but they do happen,” he said.