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MBTA tightens reins on Keolis, sets on-time goals for rail operator

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Keolis has come under harsh criticism for subpar rail service, including frequently late trains.

By Globe Staff 

Dissatisfied with the reliability of the region’s commuter-rail service, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on Friday vowed to get closely involved in its contractor’s day-to-day operations and adopted specific goals for the on-time arrivals of its trains.

Under the plan, the MBTA will require Keolis Commuter Services to operate trains on time at least 92 percent of the time. That would be a marked improvement over its performance during storms last winter, when tens of thousands of commuters were stranded by late or canceled trains.

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A top state transportation official on Friday unveiled the plan at a meeting of the new board appointed by Governor Charlie Baker to fix the T, after last winter’s shutdown of the public transportation system.

Astrid Glynn, administrator of the state Transportation Department’s rail and transit service, told the board that the commuter- rail operator’s performance “was not what Keolis offered” when it took over in July 2014, after beating out the longtime operator, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, for a $2.68 billion, eight-year contract.

“So to make sure we get what we bargained for, we are focusing on the very basics,” Glynn said.

According to figures MassDOT released last month, Keolis’s on-time performance was below 60 percent in February and March, when the region was hit by a historic series of snowstorms, but rebounded to almost 90 percent in the three-month period ending June 30.

MassDOT, in a review of Keolis’s first year operating the rail service made public last month, found that the company’s on-time performance was “not acceptable,” and that while its performance was “improving” it “remains inconsistent.”

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As a result, MassDOT and T officials will become much more deeply involved in “monitoring, scrutinizing, analyzing, and addressing Keolis’s performance on a daily basis” to help the contractor meet its goals, Glynn said in an interview.

“We think these goals, though slightly aspirational, are achievable,” she said.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, speaking to reporters after the meeting, said getting consistent on-time performance above 90 percent would “beat any performance going back a long time.”

Pollack noted that more than 50 percent of the trains that miss on-time goals are within a few minutes of meeting them, and that “with a little more hustle” those trains could hit their marks too.

A spokesman for Keolis said the company considers the plan an opportunity to “win back the trust” of its customers.

The MBTA’s original contract with Keolis does not set an overall on-time performance target, but instead establishes a schedule of penalties beginning when it falls to 99 percent and ratcheting up significantly when on-time performance dips below 92 percent.

The MBTA fined Keolis about $7.5 million for spotty service during its first year. But last month, the T told the board it would allow the company to use some of that money to hire more employees and purchase more equipment.

The five-member fiscal control board was created as part of the state budget bill and signed into law last month by the governor, who has argued that it was necessary to fix the beleaguered transit system.

The plan unveiled on Friday sets 92 percent as “a target standard” for trains arriving on time, but does not include new penalties.

However, going forward, fines will be based on Keolis’s daily performance, rather than on its monthly performance, Glynn said. “Now, every day there can be a new penalty and every day there is an opportunity for Keolis to not have a penalty,” she told the board.

Glynn said the service improvement plan also calls for a targeted standard of 90 percent on-time performance on each individual commuter line on a monthly basis, to guard against Keolis meeting its overall on-time performance goal by achieving high performance on most lines while providing poor performance on one or two lines.

The service plan was presented to the T fiscal control board on Friday, but required no board action because it is “a side agreement” to the contract with Keolis.

In another transportation development, Baker on Friday announced the appointment of Russell Gittlen, a longtime labor leader, to the state Department of Transportation’s board of directors, which is responsible for statewide transportation issues.


Sean P Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.

Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.