Longer contract for commuter rail could ease system’s many woes

The MBTA commuter rail system can perform better than it has in the last ten years. Since 2003, when private rail firm Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. began running the trains under a contract with the T, passengers have suffered through long weather delays in the winter and broken air conditioning in the summer. During bad stretches, frequent cancellations often left riders fuming.

These woes weren’t all MBCR’s fault. The company rightfully points to big on-time improvements over the last few years. But as the contract expires and the T mulls what to do next, the agency owes it to riders to demand more reliable performance in the next contract. That should include stiffer penalties if performance lags, but it should also involve extra incentives for the winning contractor to invest in locomotives and coaches. Under the current contract, the MBTA provides that equipment, but the perennially cash-strapped agency has failed to supply promised new locomotives that would have increased reliability. A private contractor could upgrade the system’s rolling stock more quickly and allow the sprawling MBTA to focus on its myriad other troubles.

The current deal ends in June, and the T has already said it will continue to use a private contractor, instead of managing the 13 commuter rail routes itself like many other big-city transit systems. Only two companies, MBCR and the French transportation firm Keolis, have qualified to bid. MBCR is angling for a long-term deal, akin to the 30-year contract signed recently in Denver.


At first blush, the mere possibility of bestowing a fat long-term contract on a company that provided such middling performance over the last decade seems hard to swallow. That’s especially true considering how MBCR wriggled out of $32.6 million in fines it was supposed to pay for late trains under the original contract. The penalties in any future deal will need more teeth, whoever wins the contract.

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Yet one reason MBCR evaded penalties was because the T never lived up to its commitments, either. That episode was emblematic of how the 2003 deal let both sides skirt accountability — when a train is late, do you blame the T, or the contractor? A long-term contract, by making it financially feasible for the contractor to make investments in new coaches, new locomotives, more modern trackside signals, and better marketing, would also make it reasonable to require those steps from the contractor and penalize it if it doesn’t perform.

The experience with MBCR over the last decade has not been an unqualified success. In a region where a reliable commuter rail system is critical to battling highway congestion, promoting smart development, and keeping the economy humming, it wasn’t good enough. The MBTA needs to learn from the experience, and sign a deal with a better mix of sticks and carrots to ensure its contractor provides riders the service they need.