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Heated meeting held on rail snags

Officials promise commuter relief

After a sometimes heated two-hour meeting, officials from the consortium running commuter rail for the MBTA pledged yesterday to spend whatever it takes in overtime in the next two weeks for mechanics to repair locomotives, fix the air conditioning in coaches, and stop a dramatic rise in late or cancel ed trains.

MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas, who those at the meeting said occasionally punctuated his complaints with profanity, summoned the railroad officials to explain why on-time performance and service is worsening when more passengers are riding the trains because of the Big Dig tunnel closings.

``He's never unfair with us, and when we drop the ball like we did here, that made him a little impatient with us for not letting him know this was coming," said Paul Lundberg, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad. ``We have the same goals in mind, and when we are not at the level of service our customers deserve, we both get agitated."

``We believe the customers will be seeing a significant improvement in service within the next two weeks," Lundberg added. ``But every day is getting better."

Railroad officials said a key hurdle was a shortage of locomotives. The 13 rail lines, which serve about 140,000 passengers on an average weekday, need 56 locomotives to run, but the railroad had 52 running yesterday. Officials promised to have that number back to 56 by Aug. 4, which should lessen the number of canceled trains.

By Aug. 11, railroad officials pledged to have enough coaches on the north - and southside routes to guarantee no more than one coach without working air conditioning per train.

On-time performance for commuter rail dropped from 91.8 percent in May to 89.4 percent in June, the first time below 90 percent since November 2005.

So far in July, 84 percent of trains have been on time out of North Station, and 88 percent on time out of South Station.

Under the T's contract with the railroad, a train is considered on-time if it arrives at its final destination within 4 minutes and 59 seconds of the scheduled arrival. Railroad officials said their own on-time goal is 97 percent.

Grabauskas said the problems appear to be the fault of both railroad and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority management, which believed that 33 new two-level cars delivered earlier this year would solve the coach shortage. The coaches they replaced were never properly fixed or maintained, he said. When more coaches began breaking down, there were no replacements and mechanics could not keep up with repairs, said Grabauskas.

He also blamed some of his staff at the MBTA for not noticing the problem sooner or alerting upper management.

``For that, I apologize to our customers," he said. ``We should have had this meeting in June before this was a problem."

The railroad consortium, which began operating the T's commuter rail under a $1.07 billion five-year contract in 2003, is a partnership of three transportation companies.

Olivier Brousse, chairman of Veolia Transportation, was unable to attend but was on the phone from his headquarters in Paris. Alternate Concepts Inc. head James F. O'Leary and Michael Hart of Bombardier did attend.

Lundberg said mechanics will work extra or double shifts, including on Saturdays, at both Somerville and Readville depots.

After getting more locomotives and coaches running, the railroad plans to add 11 assistant conductors in the second week of August and 10 locomotive engineers in September.

Lundberg said he does not know what the extra effort will cost the railroad. ``Right now we're doing whatever it takes, and we'll add up the score later," he said.

The group plans to meet around Aug. 11 to check on progress, Grabauskas said.

Mac Daniel can be reached at mdaniel@globe.com.

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