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Commuter rail delays blamed on defect in new locomotives

One of the MBTA's newer commuter locomotive is seen at North Station in Boston.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/file/Globe Staff

Commuter rail riders endured another round of delays in the past week, but this time the company operating the system provided a new explanation — defects in the MBTA’s newest multimillion dollar locomotives have left the system without enough trains to provide full service.

Various mechanical problems, which have plagued the locomotives since they began arriving for use by the MBTA more than two years ago, have frequently forced them from service.

The problem resurfaced Wednesday, when four morning trains were canceled. Keolis Commuter Services, which runs the commuter rail, started the morning commute one locomotive short because of the ongoing problems, a spokesman said.


Over 10 of the past 12 weekdays, at least 10 percent of rush-hour trains ran late each day. On Tuesday, only 76 percent of rush-hour trains were on time, and 82 percent of trains overall, according to MBTA statistics. Overall, almost 94 percent of trains arrived on time in 2016.

“I appreciate the fact that Keolis has been frank and up front about these issues,” said Jamie Eldridge, a state senator from Acton. “But we’re reaching the tipping point where those excuses are unacceptable.”

Transit officials have pointed to recently discovered defects with newer locomotives, along with the replacement of a wheel repairing machine for coaches, as the chief culprits for the delayed, canceled, and crowded trains. But some members of the MBTA’s oversight board, which last summer approved paying Keolis at least $66 million more over its eight-year contract, said they are growing tired of excuses.

“At some point, I run out of patience with these explanations,” board member Steve Poftak said at a meeting last week.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo pointed out that the newer locomotives perform far better than the older ones, and said the agency is confident that “targeted investments will lead to continued improvements in performance and reliability.”


A Keolis spokesman, Justin Thompson, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday morning that one cancellation was the result of continuing problems with the 40 new locomotives. He later said coach cars on one line had to be replaced, and the system was experiencing electrical problems with another car.

Last week, Keolis told a commuter who was complaining about delays that a “higher than expected failure rate’’ on a locomotive engine part was to blame.

That e-mail went to Inessa Teter, who has ridden the Stoughton line for 15 years. She said her 6:28 a.m. train from Canton Center was canceled three times last week, and again Tuesday.

“It’s a disaster,’’ she said in an interview. “It’s really crazy what’s going on with the trains. There are fewer cars, trains are full of people, but there aren’t enough conductors.”

Keolis, the Boston-based subsidiary of a French company that won a $2.7 billion contract to run the commuter rail in 2014, had seen its performance improve somewhat since the record-breaking winter of 2015, when it was roundly criticized.

But on-time rates have slipped, in large part because Keolis has not had enough working coaches and locomotives on hand. While the MBTA bought 40 new locomotives, only about 27 are in service. The rest are sidelined, either for repairs, fixing defects, or preventive maintenance.

Jason Lewis, a state senator from Winchester, said the shortage indicates that the MBTA and Keolis aren’t doing their jobs.


“Public transit should be seen as a preferable alternative to driving,” he said. “But frequent service challenges, problems, and failures force many commuters to choose to drive, which worsens traffic and the environment.”

The current problems are part of a pattern of troubled purchases by the MBTA. Before Keolis became the commuter rail provider in 2014, the MBTA purchased the locomotives for nearly $222 million from Idaho-based Motive Power Inc., which had partnered with General Electric to make the motors. The two companies had not worked together before, according to the MBTA’s chief operating officer Jeffrey Gonneville.

As soon as the locomotives were delivered, they were sidelined for months because of faulty bearings. MBTA officials say the new locomotives are more reliable than the older ones in its fleet, but by February 2016, nearly every locomotive had been delayed because of mechanical failures, operator errors, or other issues.

In addition, eight locomotives have experienced failures with turbochargers, which blow fresh air into the engines. The manufacturer has agreed to replace the part across the fleet. The manufacturer is already replacing four other pieces of equipment, including software for the General Electric engine and battery chargers.

In 2016, the MBTA appeared to acknowledge the issues with the new locomotives when its board approved an additional $3.7 million for extra maintenance costs. That was part of a deal that gave $66 million more to the company over the life of the contract.

The problems with the new locomotives have placed more pressure on a fleet of aging trains, including many that had been recommended for replacement or refurbishment. A 2011 maintenance plan, for example, suggested overhauls for several batches of old locomotives, but some overhauls were apparently not completed.


Keolis has recently stepped up its efforts to overhaul older locomotives. The company received about $4.3 million from the MBTA to do so, and the company’s general manager, David Scorey, has said the first refurbished locomotive will be on the tracks soon.

The MBTA has a long history of troubled procurements, including Green Line cars bought in the 1990s that caused a sharp increase in derailments, and commuter rail coaches that arrived years late and riddled with problems.

Teter blames both Keolis and the MBTA for the recent problems, saying that the MBTA should improve its oversight of the commuter rail. She said that the changes that the MBTA has made in recent years, such as getting rid of a rule that allowed riders to get a refund if their trains were canceled or delayed, don’t seem geared toward helping riders.

“I don’t think they’ll ever, ever do anything for us,” she said. “Everything they do is not for customers.”

John R. Ellement contributed to this report. Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@
. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.