On July 16, 2018, Keolis Commuter Services CEO and General Manager, David Scorey, provided an update on the progress Keolis and the MBTA have made over the past four years with investments into the commuter rail network, organization and — most importantly — service for passengers. At the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), Scorey addressed MassDOT and MBTA leadership, and the Fiscal and Management Control Board charged with helping to get MBTA services back on track.
Keolis began operating and maintaining commuter rail in July 2014, and the company is now at the four-year mark of this partnership. Over that period, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested into a railroad operation and service that had a history of under-investment and neglect. This included at the time of the contract start an outdated and unreliable fleet of locomotives, a significant backlog of ‘state of good repair’ work and an insufficient number of employees to operate the service.
As part of this presentation, Scorey provided an update on the investments and progress the company and the MBTA have been making to address these issues with the goal of continuing to further improve service and the commuter rail experience for our passengers.
While acknowledging there is more work to do, Scorey highlighted several areas where considerable progress has been made — both in terms of investing into the network and delivering on key areas that are noticeable to the passenger.
Fleet Improvements: The MBTA and Keolis have made considerable investments into overhauls and operational improvements to boost the performance of locomotives and the availability of coach cars. As a result, the average weekday locomotive availability is up 26 percent from 2014 to today. The average weekday coach availability is also improved. Keolis is delivering for service an average of 28 more coaches per day today compared to 2014, helping with passenger comfort and on-time performance.
Seasonal Preparations & Execution: New England seasons bring various challenges for a railroad to manage, and together with the MBTA, Keolis has made considerable investments into new resources to help better prepare and respond in these situations. During the past winter, commuter rail saw some of the benefits of these investments. In the days immediately after storms, commuter rail service responded noticeably better. Unlike past years when storms could impact service during the blue-sky days after the snowfall ended, during this past winter commuter rail service returned to normal levels of service quicker and more efficiently. Important investments into vegetation management and switch heaters proved to be worthwhile expenditures and benefited passengers.
Similarly, during the fall when slippery rail occurs, commuter rail experienced a significant improvement in service in 2017 compared to years past. Slippery rail occurs when leaves and debris fall onto tracks and create a layer of film as trains pass. As a result, trains take longer to slow and depart. Investments into the wash train, which clears this film from the rail, significantly reduced the impact of this seasonal issue.
High temperatures in the summer also cause challenges on a railroad when aging rail and related infrastructure expand or – worse – become misshaped. Investments into critical infrastructure, including the replacement of 200,000 rail ties and 10 track miles of rail in strategic areas, reduced the impact of heat-related speed restrictions during the summer by 97 percent from 2015 to 2017.
Organizational Investments: Keolis is also investing into its workforce and organization. Today, the company employs 19 percent more people than in 2014. This helps Keolis to better service passengers and manage the network and operations. For instance, the hiring of additional conductors helps with boarding and the passenger experience. Today, commuter rail has approximately 407 conductors and assistant conductors whereas in 2015 the service had about 368. Keolis piloted a mobile point-of-sale device for conductors as well to allow for onboard credit card payment, a new feature requested by passengers. All conductors will have these devices starting this fall. Also, Keolis is outfitting coach cars to be ‘Smart Cars,’ which will digitally count passengers, provide real-time coach temperatures and track other information to help Keolis and the MBTA better serve passengers and manage the fleet.
Collectively, while there is more work to do, these investments are helping to improve on-time performance and to provide more service. On-time performance on commuter rail for 2016, 2017 and 2018 year-to-date is two points ahead of the 10-year average of 87 percent. With service steadily improving and a continued pipeline of investment, Keolis was able to operate 10,000 more trains last year compared to 2014, an improvement that provides more people with more access to commuter rail. With nearly 9 out of 10 trains arriving on time, Scorey emphasized that there is more to do but the trend is steady and positive.