• 25 Investigates: Commuter Rail struggles with being on time despite improvements

    By: Kerry Kavanaugh


    BOSTON -- Despite years of investment and improvement, the commuter rail is still falling short when it comes to on time performance.

    Boston 25 News Anchor Kerry Kavanaugh examined the numbers for each line and spoke with commuters who say the rail still has work to do.

    “If it's very, very cold there's always switching problems that delay things. If the tracks are frozen or broken that cause significant delays,” said commuter Sandra Schwartz.

    "Getting on the train, it's standing room only. It's interesting to say the least,” said commuter Courtney Jones.

    Tracking commutes across the system

    Boston 25 News viewers who ride the Commuter Rail tracked their commutes for two weeks in January. None reported any major problems during that time. But, they say delays happen, stuff breaks, and they're late.

    "It is inconvenient because my final destination is my job,” Jones said. “It's not the greatest being late, so you really want it to be running on time."

    Jones has only been riding the rail for the last seven months. Schwartz has been a regular rider for 15 years.

    Schwartz said things are improving, including communication, but, work remains to be done.

    Numbers to back up commuter complaints

    In 2017, commuter rail trains overall were on time 88.8 percent of the time, according to Keolis, the company that operates the Commuter Rail. That was slightly lower than the year before when on-time performance was 89.3 percent. Those are the 'actual' numbers.

    Under contract with the state, Keolis aims to achieve 92 percent OTP or on time performance.
    Keolis says the MBTA adjusts “On Time Performance” for things that are outside the company’s control, like issues with Amtrak or police activity on the tracks.  Keolis says they meet the 92% mark with the adjusted OTP.

    "On the whole, they're not meeting those standards,” said Mary Connaughton, Director of Government Transparency with the think tank, Pioneer Institute.

    Only three of the 14 Commuter Rail lines, Fairmount, Greenbush, and Kingston/Plymouth met their mark in 2017.

    1. Fairmount 97.3% 
    2. Greenbush 94.7%
    3. Kingston/Plymouth 93.3%

    According to our research compared with data from Keolis, some of the worst performing lines were Fitchburg and Haverhill, both around 84 percent. The Worcester line was on time only 81 percent of the time.

    1. Fitchburg - 84.6%
    2. Haverhill 84.1% 
    3. Worcester 81% 

    Keolis declined to do an on-camera interview, but the company told 25 Investigates, it is targeting some of the underperforming lines, starting with Worcester. 

    The company said it has increased track speed where safety allows, deployed the largest-ever nine-car train and eliminated reoccurring signal issues.

    As a result, Keolis said the Worcester line delivered a 93.2 percent OTP in the month of December, its best month in three years.

    Connaughton regularly rides the Worcester line and noticed a difference.

    "They've done some tweaks to the schedule and I think those tweaks have made a difference because I've noticed a significant improvement in the last several months,” Connaughton told Kavanaugh.

    Keolis said it's also added equipment, five refurbished locomotives already in use and five more in the works, and people, training 27 new conductors.

    It's lead to fewer cancellations and an overall better experience, the company said.

    Connaughton said these are baby steps and the Commuter Rail needs a giant leap forward. "People need to be able to rely on those trains wherever they come from."

    Mistakes add up to millions of dollars in penalties

    The MBTA says Keolis is assessed and pays a penalty for all late trains.

    The MBTA said Keolis paid $7,898,075 in financial penalties in fiscal year 2017. In the first eight months of fiscal year 2018, Keolis has paid $5,784,806 in penalties.

    Earlier this year, Keolis reported the number one reason trains were late was equipment failure and equipment shortage.

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