Commuters on the Attleboro rail line: Worse service, more money

MBTA workers. Photo by: Nikita Sampath / BU News Service

By Sizhong Chen
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was originally published in The Sun Chronicle.

Bob Lane has lived in Attleboro for 29 years and his daily commute along the Providence commuter line into Boston every morning has been virtually unchanged.

He takes either the 7:12 a.m. or the 7:35 a.m. train inbound and jumps on the earliest train after work to get back home.

But one thing that has changed over the year, Lane said, is the service. It’s gotten worse, he said, adding that he experiences delays at least once a week.

“When I started to take this train in 1989, you could set your watch to it,” Lane said, “so you knew it always got you on time.”

Lane was grateful to have avoided a recent nightmare for riders on the Greenbush, Kingston/Plymouth and Middleboro/Lakeville lines. Stuck on the single-track, the 4:52 p.m. Greenbush train blocked the trains both inbound and outbound for hours on Sept. 25. The passengers were trapped inside the carriage and could do nothing but tweet.

“I was talking to people that take different lines today at work. They go to Kingston, which used to take them 50 minutes. Last night it took them 2 hours and 50 minutes,” Lane said.

Keolis Commuter Service, the operator of the rail system since 2014, issued a statement to Boston 25 television saying that “a mechanical issue with a locomotive caused the delays.” But there was no further explanation on how to prevent the same incident in the future.

Hired in the final year of former Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration, Keolis has faced huge criticism for late arrivals and inadequate daily service, such as lack of seating and conductors, and insufficient locomotives and coaches.

“In the morning, I get lucky when I get a seat,” said Joseph Mascaritolo of Foxboro, who is also a daily commuter rail rider on Providence line.

The problem, he said, is there are not enough cars open due to the lack of conductors. While there are four cars attached to one train, he could normally get access to only two of them.

In an investigative report conducted by Boston 25 in April, Keolis said they had added 27 new conductors, a move that could allow them to open additional cars.

Keolis has regularly achieved its contractual target of 92 percent on-time, while also further improving actual on-time performance. For 2016, 2017 and year-to-date actual on-time performance was 89 percent, compared to a 10-year average of 87 percent.

According to CommonWealth, the MBTA assessed Keolis $8.2 million in fines in the fiscal year of 2018, a record high.

Keolis did not respond to an interview request.

Last year, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said that the MBTA will not renew its contract with Keolis, which will expire in 2022.

Jay Gonzalez, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said that, if elected, he would fire Keolis.

“It’s totally unacceptable. This is one of the fundamental responsibilities state government has,” he said.

Contention around how to fix the public transportation system in Massachusetts has been growing during the election, with Gonzalez targeting Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s oversight.

“Whenever there’s a problem with commuter rail, Charlie Baker points the finger at Keolis and says they are doing a bad job,” Gonzalez said. “But he’s the governor and he needs to be responsible to make sure the service works.”

Baker, on the other hand, didn’t respond to the Sept. 25 incident even though some frustrated passengers sent him tweets. The governor, who entered his term accompanying a major railway breakdown amid snowstorms in 2015, has struggled to make improve transportation under his administration.

State officials say there are improvements. For example, the three-year privatization plan actually gives the MBTA a window to save some money. The Baker administration suspended the so-called Pacheco Law in 2015, which allowed the management of MBTA to be exempt from the state audit.

Earlier this year, officials of the MBTA said the agency is able to balance its budget for the first time in a decade. And even though Keolis is paying a huge amount of fines, mostly due to delays and cancellations, its on-time performance is better than the 83 percent rate in 2015.

Last Wednesday, Baker announced on Twitter that the MBTA has awarded $875 million in State of Good Repair contracts in an effort to reduce from 25 to 15 years its backlog of repair issues, such as deferred maintenance and aging infrastructure.

But that’s cold comfort to commuters like Lane used to the service in early 1990s.

“It’s not that way anymore,” he said.

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