If numbers tell the story, Keolis and the MBTA have been winning over commuter rail passengers since the disastrous winter of 2015, when record snowfalls had trains stuck on the tracks and subway passengers sometimes freezing in the dark.
Ridership was in jeopardy, the T was the focus of online anger and the gristmill for news stories almost daily. Relying on public transportation to get to work – especially from end-of-the-rail-line places like Rockport and Newburyport – was a daily roll of the dice.
But that was then.
Officials from the MBTA and commuter rail contractor Keolis are happy to list their successes these days, and rightly so. In a meeting with the editorial board of the North of Boston Media Group on Friday, those officials pointed to improved on-time performance by commuter trains; a decent bump up in satisfaction in a survey of commuters; a schedule of bringing in new trains and upgrading existing ones, through the year 2021; and an increase in the number of people from the Merrimack Valley and North Shore using commuter rail in the last five years.
Keolis CEO and General Manager David Scorey highlighted the improved on-time performance for commuter trains. On time is considered to be a train that completes its full journey no later than five minutes past the schedule. The operation under Keolis management averaged about 90% over the past year, with the average performance over the last decade running about 86%. Keolis took over the system in July 2014, so it can take credit for that increase.
The commuter rail’s performance is actually higher — about 94% — when accounting for things over which Keolis has no control, like medical emergencies on trains or someone else’s tree falling across the tracks. Scorey said the best rates of on-time performance, on European systems, are usually in the 95 to 96% range.
One of the biggest steps the T and Keolis can take to ensure trains run on time is to keep up their equipment. The MBTA has invested $100 million to upgrade 37 of the older trains, and there are plans to buy 80 two-level coaches, starting in 2022, which will increase the number of seats, reliability and “passenger experience,” Keolis and T officials said.
The increase in rider satisfaction and a 22% increase in ridership from north of Boston in the past five years are worth a close look. Keolis officials concede the ridership increase could be tied in with the growing population north of the city. But if that’s the case, it could mean more people moving to the North Shore and Merrimack Valley see commuter trains as a good option for getting into Greater Boston. And for anyone who relies on their car to drive to the Boston area for work, an increase in people using commuter rail might translate to fewer cars added to the congestion every day.
Anyone who commutes by rail, subway, bus or The Ride – and all of us who pay for the public transportation system – can do their own assessment of the service by checking the MBTA online dashboard at https://mbtabackontrack.com/performance/#/home.
On any given day, the numbers can vary quite a bit from the 90% average on-time assessment touted by Keolis and MBTA officials last week. But the daily reports do illustrate both a level of transparency by the state and its commuter rail operator, and a consistent increase in reliability for commuters from the North Shore and Merrimack Valley.
Overall, it’s good that Keolis and the T are working together to make commuting by train more reliable, comfortable and logical. This effort is costing a lot of money, since it requires constant upgrades of equipment and orders for new rail coaches.
But it’s clear the company and the state agency are focused on making the trains run on time, when possible, and anticipating the arrival of winter. Winter guarantees delays from time to time, no matter who is running the system, but Keolis and the T say they are ready.