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Commuter rail firm vows better service

Train delays up for past 2 months

Email|Print| Text size + By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / November 29, 2007

Three of every 10 of Boston's suburban commuter trains ran at least five minutes late in November, matching a similarly dismal October performance, according to statistics released yesterday.

A private company hired to maintain and operate the train service has outlined 10 steps, including forging better relations with its workers, to improve service, officials said yesterday. The company also took out full-page advertisements in two free daily newspapers yesterday, apologizing for the delays.

"I think it's going to take several more weeks, but I think we're already seeing improvement on some lines," said James F. O'Leary, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. He said fewer of the delays have been long in recent days; trains are counted officially late after a five-minute delay.

Riders - about 72,000 take daily round trips - have been livid. Many have complained that they have missed work, been stuck on cold platforms without information, or had trouble coordinating rides home.

"It's completely unreliable," said Mark Sardegna, 43, a Natick resident who said he now leaves an hour earlier for work in the morning and often misses tucking his kids into bed at night because of late trains.

Nearly one in four trains in and out of North Station was late in November. More than one in three trains was late in and out of South Station. Delays were similar in October, the worst monthly performance since O'Leary's company signed a five-year $1.07 billion operations contract in 2003.

Several of the steps outlined by O'Leary began earlier this month; others are still under negotiation. Many may not be obvious to riders, including a mechanical change initiated last week that will let engineers pass in and out of the Needham Heights station more quickly, and a new contract with a fuel supplier intended to reduce congestion at the fueling station that serves trains heading south.

The railroad company also hired 14 assistant conductors and five train masters to monitor crew performance and equipment. O'Leary said he is working with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to explore leasing more locomotives for when equipment fails.

O'Leary has blamed a group of engineers and conductors, upset with new work rules, for disrupting service. Leaders of the conductors' and engineering unions adamantly deny an organized effort, but say they have been under pressure to comply with time-consuming regulations since May.

Daniel A. Grabauskas, general manager of the MBTA, said employee issues appear to be a principal cause of the delays. Last week, he and O'Leary were trading blame for the problems. Yesterday, he expressed "a high degree of confidence in the attention that [Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company] is paying to this."

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