The commuter rail system froze up in the aftermath of Thursday’s snowstorm, as delays, cancellations, and breakdowns stymied the MBTA during its most serious cold-weather test since the epic service collapse of 2015.
Already frustrated in recent months with the French company that runs the commuter rail system, the T issued a stern rebuke of Keolis Commuter Services after it canceled more than two dozen trains while others faced severe delays throughout the day.
After running on a limited schedule during the storm, the commuter rail was expected to return to normal weekday service Friday as temperatures plummeted. Instead nearly every commuter rail line experienced interruptions during either the morning or afternoon commute, with multiple trains serving North Station canceled and many trains out of South Station well behind schedule.
In a statement, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo praised the cold-weather performance of the subway and bus systems, which the T operates directly. But the commuter rail Friday was “disappointing,” and he said the T’s general manager, Luis Ramirez, “met today with Keolis leadership, and made it very clear that they should raise their level of service to meet MBTA customers’ expectations.”
Keolis general manager David Scorey said the company “did not fully execute on our storm plan leading to the delivery of service that fell far short of our customers’ expectations.”
“Our customers deserve better and we apologize for our performance,” Scorey said. “Changes are being made and we fully expect our service to improve dramatically during the next storm.”
He did not detail the changes Keolis will make. The company — the T’s largest contractor, which has run the commuter rail since 2014 — is responsible for handling most day-to-day maintenance issues on the commuter rail.
After failures and frustrations with several vendors, including Keolis, the T has recently pledged to put more emphasis on contract oversight. The state has already said it will rebid the contract in 2022, rather than picking up an optional extension for Keolis.
Last fall, state officials criticized the commuter rail operator’s safety record and its performance even during normal weather conditions. More recently, officials at both the T and Keolis have said the relationship has grown stronger since the T assigned a former general manager, Dan Grabauskas, to closely monitor the contract.
Although officials on Friday again knocked Keolis, they have previously acknowledged that passing the buck to a contractor probably won’t satisfy frustrated and frigid passengers.
“From our customers’ perspective, if it has a T in a circle on the side, it is the T, and they can and should expect the quality of service they need to get where they’re going,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said in an interview last month. “We need to get better at not just running the service we run. . . . The T needs to be an organization that is better at contracting services.”
The combination of the snowstorm, flooding, and cold temperatures marked the T’s biggest winter-weather challenge since 2015. That year, service on the commuter rail and subway was upended for days as storm after storm overwhelmed the T’s aging infrastructure. The disaster led the Baker administration to reshape the agency, installing new management and focusing more on cost controls and system repairs — including a $100 million investment in new infrastructure and equipment.
The subway and bus systems mostly functioned the last two days, though there were delays on the Blue Line Friday night. The Aquarium Station was reopened by Friday morning after Thursday’s extreme flooding forced it to close for the day.
But the commuter rail had issues beginning with Thursday evening’s commute that rolled into Friday. During the morning peak, a train from Worcester stalled outside South Station, causing congestion and backups along the other lines that feed into that terminal.
Meanwhile, other delays were caused by problems with two switches south of the city that are maintained by Amtrak. Amtrak has the right to use the T’s tracks for its Northeast Corridor service, and in exchange handles daily maintenance and dispatching duties on the route, and receives about $20 million a year from the T. A spokesman for Amtrak said its switch issues were weather related, but had no further details.
The switch and disabled train issues compounded, causing trains to sit south of the station for a half hour or longer, “waiting for platforms to become available,” Mazzola said.
Other commuter rail problems north of the city were directly related to Thursday’s storm, such as trains canceled Friday morning on the Fitchburg Line “due to the storm’s impact on equipment availability,” according to the MBTA’s website.
Extreme flooding also hit the MBTA’s Newburyport/Rockport Line, where one train was expected to be delayed by at least 30 minutes “due to impact of the historic tidal surge yesterday,” the T said. Several other trains going to and from Rockport and Newburyport were also canceled, including six during evening rush.