Keolis, MBTA face grilling on Beacon Hill
Faulty equipment detailed at hearing; state to reassess purchasing system
After legislators grilled commuter-rail officials Tuesday for their woeful response to this winter’s snowstorms and the breakdown of trains, a senior lawmaker suggested that the Legislature consider taking away the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s power to purchase its own equipment.
Democratic Representative William M. Straus, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said he believes Beacon Hill will soon tackle whether the MBTA is capable of handling the responsibility.
“If there was a history of the T going it alone and buying the equipment, whether it’s snowplows or engines, I think those days are gone,” he said.
Straus was seconded by Thomas Murray, the president of the local chapter of the Transport Workers Union, who said the T was “buying junk” that requires constant maintenance.
“In my 44 years on the railroad, I have never seen equipment, coaches or locomotives plagued with defects, mechanical and structural, after initial entry into service,” Murray told the joint committee, which was in its second day of hearings into the MBTA’s troubled operations.
The T owns the equipment used for its commuter rail network, but uses a contractor to operate the system.
On Tuesday, Gerald Francis, general manager of Keolis Commuter Services, told lawmakers that the T had promised 40 new locomotives by the end of last year. But shortly after Keolis took over the service in July, Francis said, its officials were told the delivery would be delayed by a year. The Globe has reported that the locomotives, purchased at a cost of $222 million, had been sidelined by mechanical flaws.
As of Tuesday, only 10 of those 40 new locomotives had been put in service. The T has said it will add at least three of the locomotives a month.
The question of oversight for such purchases is wrapped into the larger issue of how the MBTA is governed. Currently, the state Department of Transportation’s board of directors has oversight of the T, and votes on major procurements.
A special panel appointed by Governor Charlie Baker during the height of this winter’s crisis could recommend changing the way the agency is governed.
Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, said the MBTA is ready to provide information on past procurements and to “work hard to gain the confidence of the Transportation Committee.”
Keolis, a subsidiary of a French transportation company, has borne the brunt of criticism over the failures of the commuter rail service this winter. But Murray said the T should take some of the blame.
“While the severity of this winter could not be predicted, the ability to combat the winter onslaught was hampered by a dysfunctional management system,” the union official said. “The present system allows the MBTA to assess blame on the operator, Keolis, and evade responsibility.”
Murray did not spare Keolis from criticism, however. “This was a severe winter, we’ve had a lot of snow and we did have delays, but you’ve got to get visible and effective leadership,” he said. “What we saw was a paralysis on the upper management level.”
He said Keolis fell behind on snow removal, effectively dooming the system’s recovery. “Once we got behind it, we lost the battle,” he said.
Francis, who took over from Thomas M. Mulligan in late February, declined to comment on Murray’s testimony, but he apologized to riders for falling short of expectations.
He attributed some of those failures to the condition of the MBTA’s commuter trains. “We inherited a train fleet that was old and facing serious maintenance issues,” he said.
It takes 65 locomotives for the commuter rail system to run on a full schedule. Keolis officials said 33 trains were taken out of service because of the snow and the cold.
Attempting to explain why Keolis took six weeks to recover, Francis said the company needed to fix 67 traction motors that power the locomotives. “We experienced a failure rate three times what is normal,” he said.
But lawmakers still had tough questions for the company. Several brought up the failure of Keolis conductors to collect fares during the height of the crisis. Others asked about the contractual penalties that Keolis is supposed to pay for poor service.
Under the company’s performance contract with the T, it can be fined more than $860,000 every month for delayed and canceled trains, dirty trains, failure to collect fares, and other shortcomings.
The company has tried to invoke a clause in its contract that provides an out based on extreme weather conditions.
Frank DePaola, the interim general manager of the T, said during Monday’s hearing that the agency had not decided whether Keolis would be able to avoid the penalties.
Keolis has not heard back about fines for January through March, according to Leslie Aun, a company spokeswoman.