Metro

STARTS & STOPS

Lawmaker wants state to reopen commuter rail contract

Passengers waited as an MBTA commuter rail train pulled into the North Beverly station on Feb. 17, 2015.
John Blanding/Globe staff/File
Passengers waited as an MBTA commuter rail train pulled into the North Beverly station on Feb. 17, 2015.

A leader of the state Legislature’s transportation committee is calling upon the state to reopen its contract with Keolis Commuter Services, amid controversy over the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s decision to forgive some fines for the company.

State Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said he believes the eight-year, $2.7 billion contract between Keolis and the MBTA is flawed.

“As currently structured, I believe the existing contract between the state and Keolis, which pre-dates your tenure, does not sufficiently account for the kind of operations which provide the highest level of service and cost efficiencies which the public deserves,” Straus wrote Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack on Oct. 19.

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Reopening the contract would likely draw criticism from those who believe that Keolis should be held accountable for the deal, but Straus said the situation must be addressed.

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“It does nobody any good to be going back and forth every few months on another contract problem,” he said. “And it seems to me that it’s going to be even less productive when you think about what’s going on and what will continue to occur for five more years.”

Since Keolis Commuter Services, the Boston arm of an international company backed by the French National Railroad, first won the contract in 2014, critics, including the losing bidder, have suggested the company dramatically underbid the actual cost.

The company has been losing millions of dollars since it took over operations, and in July, MBTA officials voted to pay Keolis at least $66 million more over the life of the contract. Officials said the changes were necessary because Keolis would be operating more locomotives and coaches, and on different schedules.

Keolis faced renewed criticism in recent days after the Globe reported that the MBTA had quietly forgiven about $839,000 in fines against the company for its performance in the winter of 2015, when it operated on a sharply reduced schedule for weeks. Officials have repeatedly pointed out the agency has paid nearly $14 million in other penalties.

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Straus said he doesn’t believe the state should have returned the money, but he believes the move suggested that “there’s something wrong with the contract.”

He also urged the state to reconsider how the MBTA contracts the commuter rail system. The next agreement could be longer and could shift a greater share of capital expenses to the contractor, he said. The MBTA now owns all the equipment on the railroad, while the contractor must maintain the equipment.

Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for the state transportation department, said in a statement that the agency appreciated Straus’s feedback, and would continue to focus on “holding Keolis accountable to the terms of their contract.”

Leslie Aun, a spokeswoman for Keolis, said in a statement that the company was committed to staying in Massachusetts for the long term.

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