CEO: Commuter rail system back to full service by March 30

AP News
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Posted: Feb 26, 2015 5:45 PM

BOSTON (AP) — The head of the French company that operates Massachusetts' commuter rail system apologized for the breakdowns and delays that have plagued the system after a series of storms dumped more than 7 feet of snow on the region and vowed that full service would be restored — but not until the end of next month.

Keolis International CEO Bernard Tabary said a plan approved by Gov. Charlie Baker calls for the system to operate at 78 percent capacity by Friday, with the goal of full service by March 30.

"We will do everything we can to accelerate that process, and have brought experts in from around the world to support this effort," Tabary said in a statement.

Baker met with top Keolis officials Thursday after expressing frustration with the performance of commuter rail during the brutal winter stretch. Tabary called the meeting constructive.

Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack told a legislative oversight hearing that Keolis was slow to grasp the magnitude of the problems, which mirrored those encountered by other parts of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the nation's oldest public transit system, which is known as the MBTA, or "T'' for short.

During the first three weeks of February, a month that brought record snowfall, there wasn't a single day that all MBTA stations remained open or all transit lines operated, Pollack said.

"As a region, we need a transit system that is resilient, but we have one that is fragile," she said.

Keolis Commuter Services, a subsidiary of the international company, won an eight-year, $2.68 billion contract last year from the MBTA to run the state's 394 miles of commuter rail track. Keolis runs transportation systems in 15 countries serving 2.5 billion passengers, according to its website.

Tabary acknowledged the frayed nerves of commuters who have grappled with canceled or delayed trains.

"We know you've waited on cold platforms and been late to work or had a difficult time getting home at night," Tabary said. "We know we haven't performed up to the high standards you have a right to demand and that we demand of ourselves."

"On behalf of the entire Keolis team, I want to express our sincere apologies," he added.

A Senate committee that oversees capital expenditures by Massachusetts called Thursday's Statehouse hearing in the hopes of getting more information on the MBTA's plans to upgrade its entire system and prevent future collapses. Pollack — who has been on the job in the new Baker administration for only a month — conceded she could provide few immediate answers, including estimates of how much has been spent on snow removal and system recovery efforts, or the T's current maintenance backlog, last pegged at $3 billion in 2009.

The MBTA was one of the mostly heavily indebted systems in the U.S., Pollack said, with about $5.5 billion in outstanding debt, not including interest. Nearly a quarter of the agency's annual operating budget goes to repay debt.

Baker recently named a panel of outside experts to study the root problems that led to the service breakdowns and make recommendations by the end of March.

Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat who is chairman of the Senate committee, said his district was hard hit by service disruptions on the MBTA's Red Line branch. Constituents, he said, have flooded his office with complaints about long waits for trains that never arrived, or boarding substitute buses that would then became snarled in massive traffic jams.

"It was complete and total chaos," Keenan said.

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Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.