Rail contractor drafts service plan

Schedule, alerts overhauls proposed

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / February 16, 2011

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Responding to criticism from riders and pressure from public officials, the MBTA’s commuter rail contractor said yesterday that it will provide more timely and accurate announcements about disabled and delayed trains by the end of the month.

Badly hampered by winter weather, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad has also developed a reduced schedule for snowstorms that it believes it can more capably meet, which it will submit to the T.

Those measures are part of a plan that the commuter railroad executives and the state’s top transportation officials agreed to at a meeting yesterday about dissatisfaction with the commuter rail’s performance, especially during recent snowstorms.

The final plan will be drafted by this afternoon, and the state will closely track progress before another meeting in two weeks, officials said.

“We’ve been disappointed; our customers have been angry; we’ve all been frustrated,’’ state Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan said, after a nearly two-hour, closed-door meeting with managers and board members from the commuter railroad, the contractor that collects more than $250 million a year to run commuter rail for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. “We’ve got an action plan that we’ve agreed to. I’m optimistic that we’ve got the attention at the highest levels of the commuter rail.’’

MBCR executives declined to be interviewed but released a statement acknowledging “that the level of service in January was not acceptable,’’ and highlighting improvement plans.

The company has brought in mechanical specialists to share practices that can help electric-drive motors, brake components, and other electrical and mechanical parts perform better or rebound faster in snow and cold weather, and it said it is investing more time and money in equipment and track maintenance, at no additional cost to the T.

The commuter railroad placed significant blame for recent performance lapses on a series of snowstorms and on an aging fleet, with roughly three-quarters of the 82 locomotives and 410 coaches owned by the MBTA nearing or exceeding the 25-year useful life intended by manufacturers. The T is well behind on a fleet plan it intended to follow for replacing equipment at the time the railroad bid to take over service from Amtrak, starting in mid-2003.

A presentation the railroad prepared for yesterday’s meeting pointed out that other cold-weather railroads have also experienced problems this winter and included data that suggest that poor service is closely associated with bad weather.

A daily graph of trains in and out of North Station shows that the 12 worst days, including several when more than half of all trains were delayed, occurred during or shortly after snowstorms, with equipment hampered by drifting snow and caked ice.

But state officials said the service must perform better despite age and snow and regardless of what happens elsewhere.

The MBTA’s general manager, Richard A. Davey, said the state and T are trying to provide the commuter railroad with support, including new equipment, though the bulk of roughly $300 million worth of recent orders approved by the T board — 75 coaches and 20 locomotives — will arrive after MBCR’s contract expires in mid-2013. As a stopgap, the T purchased two locomotives at $3.5 million each from the Utah Transit Authority and is scouring the country for more; a set of five, 15-year-old locomotives from Maryland will arrive this week for testing for possible rental.

“In the meantime, MBCR has an obligation to step up its maintenance practices,’’ Davey said.

Commuter rail carries roughly 70,000 people between Boston and its suburbs each weekday. Thousands of delayed trains this winter have left commuters shivering in uncertainty on station platforms.

Lawmakers and the T have fielded legions of complaints from people who say their frustration has been compounded by the inability of the commuter railroad and the T to communicate about delayed and disabled trains. The announcements — “T Alerts’’ delivered via phone and e-mail and posted online, as well as messages on LED signs at platforms — are frequently too late to be helpful or inaccurate.

Davey said the T and the railroad are working to improve both types of announcements by March 1. The Web and message alerts will be improved by allowing commuter rail dispatchers to post the messages, instead of sending them along to MBTA subway and bus dispatchers.

Davey and Mullan were joined by the new House and Senate chairmen of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee.

Representative William M. Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, said the action plan should benefit riders beyond the winter. “The changes that [the state has] asked for, have insisted on, are things that are going to assist commuter rail service even when spring and summer comes,’’ he said.

Senator Thomas M. McGee, a Lynn Democrat, said he thinks communication and on-time performance can both be improved, at no additional cost.

But there are larger issues, he said. “We need to have a larger discussion about investment in transportation and what we need to do and invest, so we have quality, on-time, and safe transportation in the state.’’