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Commuter rail officials show off new snow equipment

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

MBTA officials brought out about two dozen tractors to display how prepared the service will be for heavy snowstorms.

By Nicole Dungca Globe Staff 

CAMBRIDGE — The yellow snow-clearing machines unveiled on Wednesday by MBTA and commuter rail officials were shiny and new, but they were hardly novel.

Many other transit agencies regularly keep on hand similar vehicles, such as giant tractors that have been converted into rail-riding snowblowers and snowplows.

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Before last winter, however, the MBTA had allowed some of its own snow-fighting machines to fall into disrepair — a move that had stark consequences after the record-breaking snow last winter.

On Wednesday, the MBTA and Keolis, the commuter rail operator, showed off the new equipment in an attempt to show riders they would not experience another winter of disastrous commutes. The equipment is part of the MBTA’s $83.7 million “winter resiliency plan” touted by Governor Charlie Baker in June.

Frank DePaola, general manager of the MBTA, said the agency has worked with Keolis to ensure the trains will run through even the worst of snowstorms.

“We’re preparing for a winter just like last year,” he said.

Last winter, commuter rail riders endured the brunt of the public transit delays. Keolis operated fewer trains than usual for weeks after the snowstorms, and often gave little warning about canceled or late trains. Delays and crowded trains followed well into the spring, to the chagrin of customers who often spend hundreds of dollars on monthly passes.

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Gerald Francis, general manager of Keolis, said the company has learned lessons from last winter, and workers are using those to improve their emergency plans for the winter.

“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about this stuff,” he said on Wednesday.

At Keolis’s maintenance yard near Alewife Station on Wednesday, workers moved three yellow snow-fighting machines up and down the tracks. About two dozen green and red tractors, lined up like a fleet ready for battle, shone nearby in the sunshine.

Officials say Keolis will soon have access to about 45 new vehicles specifically meant to clear snow off of nearly 700 miles of commuter rail tracks along the lines in the MBTA’s rail yards.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

MBTA officials showed off snow-fighting equipment.

Some of those machines aren’t here yet. The MBTA had one particular brand of a giant, yellow snowplow on display on Wednesday, and nine others are supposed to come in December or January. They also ordered six additional snow-clearing tractors that ride on the rails, eight front-end loaders that will plow around the tracks, and about 25 more John Deere tractors to clear the railyards.

DePaola said they had ordered such equipment in the summer, but they weren’t like new cars “that you can drive off a lot.”

Officials say the new machinery could make a big difference: During last winter’s record-breaking snowstorms, the commuter rail relied largely on the plows attached to its locomotives to remove snow — which helped lead to the breakdown of dozens of motors within the locomotive engines.

Keolis’s subpar service during the winter attracted the ire of not only commuters, but also many state officials, including the MBTA’s former general manager. In e-mails sent during the storm, Beverly Scott blasted the company for having little leadership during one of the biggest snow emergencies in decades.

DePaola, who took over the agency in March, also acknowledged that the MBTA had not followed basic winter preparation techniques that were common in other major metropolitan cities: In late March, he told lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Transportation that the MBTA had few snow-fighting vehicles designed specifically for snow removal.

Keolis and MBTA officials say this winter will be different. Keolis added about 30 customer service employees and hired nearly 70 assistant conductors and engineers to drive trains. The agency also brought on a chief mechanical officer, an important role that had been left vacant during the winter snowstorms. And by the year’s end, all of the MBTA’s 40 new locomotives — which were sidelined immediately upon delivery — are expected to be in service for the commuter rail. Right now, 35 are out on the tracks, according to Francis.

The company has also remade its snow plan to address storms as severe as last year. DePaola said officials were scrapping old plans because of last winter’s failures.

“We had procedures that we have followed in years past that people followed last year that clearly did not suffice to get us through the winter,” he said.

Wednesday’s unveiling of equipment followed a similar event in September, in which DePaola joined the governor to discuss the subway system’s new tracks and snow vehicles.

Transportation officials across the state are eager to show commuters that the agencies are ready for the winter. Massport officials on Wednesday also revealed steps they were taking to avoid problems like last winter.

Thomas Glynn, Massport’s chief executive, said the agency regularly relies on its fleet of 70-foot-long snow-removing vehicles equipped with 27-foot plows — and this year, officials bought another to be extra prepared. At Logan Airport, workers must clear a 1,700-acre airfield and four runways that can run as long as 2 miles.

Glynn, like DePaola, said the agency is preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.

“We have to be ready for (a winter like) last year,” he said. “It’s New England.”


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.