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State officials aren’t happy with commuter rail performance

Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack spoke at a State House press conference in July.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said Monday that she is dismayed by inconsistent performance on the commuter rail, more than three years after Keolis Commuter Services began running the system.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials also criticized another contractor for failing to properly install some rail safety equipment.

During a presentation by Keolis general manager David Scorey to the T’s governing board, Pollack pointed out that more than half of the lines are failing to meet a target of 90 pecent for on-time performance — including some of the busiest.

“Over the last couple of years we’ve categorized problems as line-specific,” she said. “This chart doesn’t look line-specific. This looks like the majority of the lines are having some sort of problems.”


Keolis took over the rail system in 2014 from Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. Its on-time performance in the past two years is about 89 percent, above the 10-year average of 87 percent.

But Pollack said performance is still inconsistent, with some low-ridership lines operating very well while other busier lines struggle.

Keolis, a subsidiary of a French company, won an eight-year, $2.6 billion contract to operate the system in 2014, the largest ever awarded by the T.

It was the target of heavy criticism during the winter of 2015, when snowstorms crippled the commuter rail system. And Pollack has already said the state will not grant optional extensions to Keolis when its contract expires in 2022, though she expects Keolis to bid for the next contract.

On Monday, she said she was “particularly disturbed” by commuter rail performance in September, when 88.6 percent of trains arrived on time after finishing above the 90 percent benchmark in both July and August. On-time performance was as low as 74 percent on the persistently underperforming Worcester line.


“September should be relatively high-performing month,” she said. “We don’t have snow; we don’t have slippery rail yet.”

Scorey said the September data was skewed by a rough week at the end of the month, caused by signal problems and other issues.

The company is using several tactics to improve performance, including better coordination with Amtrak, new conductors, signal improvement work, and refurbishing old locomotives, he said.

Pollack tempered her criticism somewhat after the meeting, saying Keolis has “done a good job of changing things up” when problems arise.

“But once we solve one problem, there seems to be another,” she said, such as lingering performance issues even after Keolis added more locomotives.

The MBTA recently hired its former general manager, Dan Grabauskas, as a consultant to manage the Keolis contract. Pollack said she hopes he’ll improve the service.

The T’s board learned about another contractor issue Monday when it received an update on a $459 million project installing federally mandated technology to prevent collisions and derailments. Italian company Ansaldo STS, the lead contractor, has failed to properly install fiber-optic cables for the project, with some mounted too low or in trees, said Karen Antion, a T consultant overseeing the project.

The issue is not expected to delay the project or add to its cost, but officials were angry to hear about the shoddy work. Board chairman Joseph Aiello said the problem “is not even close to acceptable,” and Brian Lang, another member, said it was emblematic of “contractors run amok.”


Ansaldo did not respond to a request for comment.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.