Rail service to get scrutiny

State wants improvements after dismal winter’s woes

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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Commuter rail officials propose to run a reduced schedule in foul weather, starting with the next snowstorm, and to improve the system for alerting customers about delays and disruptions by next month, according to a plan that leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad will present to the state’s top transportation officials today.

Responding to criticism over regularly delayed trains and an unreliable alert system, the commuter rail officials intend to offer state transportation officials a plan to improve their performance. But they also contend that the age of the MBTA-owned train fleet and an above-average number of snowstorms have compounded the commuter rail’s problems this winter.

Leaders of the commuter railroad company, a privately-owned consortium of businesses that is paid more than $250 million a year to operate the T’s commuter rail system, are scheduled to meet today with the state transportation secretary, the MBTA general manager, and the House and Senate chairmen of the legislative transportation committee. State officials demanded the meeting after being deluged with complaints from commuters repeatedly stranded on freezing and snowy station platforms this winter.

“We want to make sure that local management is working with a sense of urgency to improve the situation, and, at the same time, that the [MBCR] board is providing local management with the resources necessary to make those improvements and to make lasting improvements,’’ MBTA general manager Richard A. Davey said in an interview yesterday.

In January, fewer than 73 percent of commuter rail trains arrived at their final destination within five minutes of the scheduled time. Thousands of trains were delayed by more than 850 hours, and 111 were canceled altogether.

Making matters worse, announcements about delays posted online and on station message boards and sent to riders via text message regularly came too late to be helpful.

Davey said officials do not intend to excoriate commuter railroad company at the meeting, but want to push them to do better.

“I think it will be constructive,’’ he said. “I am definitely not the type of person that dwells on complaining or otherwise pointing out what happened in the past. What I’m interested in hearing about is what we can do to improve service going forward, and I think that’s what our customers want to know, too.’’

Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan said his presence at the meeting is a sign of the seriousness of the state’s concern, and of Governor Deval Patrick’s commitment to public transportation.

“My expectations for the commuter rail are that service will improve,’’ Mullan said. “I’m optimistic that we can have an honest discussion about the issues that we face in commuter rail and develop a game plan for moving forward.’’

The commuter rail service, which carries roughly 70,000 people to and from Boston each day, is critical to the financial well-being of the region, said Jim Klocke, executive vice president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s relied upon by all types of industries, all sizes of companies, and it’s one of the biggest reasons we have a regional economy,’’ said Klocke, a daily commuter on the Framingham/Worcester Line who also said he thought the rail service performed reasonably, given the weather this winter.

Commuter rail officials, who are preparing to bid for a renewal of their state contract, declined to comment in advance of today’s meeting. But a draft copy of a presentation the private company plans to deliver today, obtained by the Globe, suggests that the firm will argue that the local commuter rail has performed well in comparison with others.

The 2010-11 winter has wreaked havoc on rails across the Northeast and beyond, and the company’s presentation highlights the many problems Amtrak and New York’s Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road, among others, have experienced.

According to the presentation, commuter rail officials will pledge to devote more staff time and financial resources to maintaining coaches and locomotives.

More than three-quarters of the 80 locomotives and 410 coaches owned by the T are approaching or have exceeded the manufacturer’s suggested life of 25 years. The T recently leased two new locomotives from the Utah Transit Authority.

Mullan and Davey said that, even with an aging fleet, MBCR should be able to run more trains on time.

Although the temperature approached 50 degrees yesterday, the commuter rail still had delays of at least five minutes on 17 percent of the 258 trains scheduled for the morning, including nine delayed 20 minutes or more. Several more were delayed in the evening, though full statistics for the day will not be available until this morning.

In the Needham Heights sunshine, 20-year rider Beth DelBono waited in disbelief as a train preparing to make its first trip of the day (the 602, scheduled to leave at 6:45 a.m.) had to be scratched before it could move. An electrical problem in the control car — the lead coach where the engineer operates on inbound trips, while the locomotive is pushing from the rear — forced the rail company to swap that car with the one on the next scheduled train, and to send a crew to repair it on site, resulting in a nearly half-hour delay.

“It just seemed like a final blow,’’ said DelBono, who works in research at a Boston hospital.

As a second-generation commuter rail rider, she was once an advocate for the financial and environmental benefits of riding the train. Now she is resigned to it, riding with others who do not have the option to drive to work, their experience exacerbated by poorly timed service alerts posted online and at station message boards or distributed via text message.

“There has to be a better way of doing things,’’ DelBono said.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at