KEOLIS, LIKE THE two previous companies hired to operate Boston’s commuter rail system, has had some rough moments . The French firm won an eight-year contract in 2014, raising hopes that it would import some Gallic know-how to the state’s 12 commuter rail routes, vital arteries for the region’s economy. The result has been, as they say, comme ci comme ça: Several routes still struggle with on-time performance, and Boston’s Fairmount Line experienced a spate of cancellations last year.
But as the Baker administration starts to consider the outlines of the next contract, perhaps it’s time to ask whether it might be us, not them. The contract offered to Keolis — like the contract with Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail before them, and the contracts with Amtrak before that — was relatively short in the context of public transportation. As counterintuitive as it might seem, the best way to achieve breakthrough improvements in service levels might be to take a page from cities and regions that have signed much longer-term agreements coupled with higher expectations.
That idea, recommended last year by House Transportation Committee chairman William Straus, has surfaced before, including prior to the signing of the current Keolis contract. But the administration of former governor Deval Patrick was reluctant to make such a leap of faith. By limiting the partnership to only eight years, with the possibility of two two-year extensions, the state ensured that if officials didn’t like the results, then at least they wouldn’t be locked into the deal for a generation. That’s why the state will be able to seek a new contract in 2022, as the Baker administration has signalled it wants to do.
But if that decision limited the downside, it also meant Keolis wouldn’t make any long-term investments in the system, since it wouldn’t be around to recoup the benefits. Instead, the commuter rail contractor depends on the locomotives and passenger cars supplied by the T, many of which are decades old.
A contract in the neighborhood of 20 years, along with an expectation that the next contractor would be responsible for the system’s capital needs, would shift responsibility to that company and give it more of an incentive to innovate. While it’s far too soon to start soliciting bids, the Baker administration shouldn’t miss the chance to craft a transformative deal.
In the meantime, the state will also need to hold Keolis to the existing contract. But the performance of Keolis only offers further confirmation that short contracts aren’t maximizing the potential of the commuter rail system for riders and the state. It’s never too early to start thinking about ways to do better next time.