NORTH ANDOVER — More trains are running on time and more people are satisfied with the commuter rail, according to officials with the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and Keolis, the private French company that runs the commuter rail system.
MBTA Director of Commuter Rail Rob DiAdamo, Keolis CEO and General Manager David Scorey, and Keolis Director of Public Affairs Tory Mazzola met with editors of The Eagle-Tribune and its sister newspapers on Friday to discuss improvements to the service over the last five years.
The commuter rail serves approximately 127,000 passengers every weekday on 14 lines, which encompass 400 miles of track and 139 stations — including ones in Haverhill, Lawrence, Newburyport, Salem and Rockport.
When Keolis took charge of the aging, troubled system in July 2014, the system was in "a general state of disrepair," Scorey said. "There was a lot of infrastructure work needed. We didn't have the right number of people when we started the contract to operate."
"All of those things are being addressed, have been addressed and we see are seeing further improvement," he said.
According to Scorey, one of the biggest problems early in Keolis' management of the system was the condition of the trains. During the winter of 2015, when epic snowstorms crippled much of the commuter rail, subway and bus system, only about 39% of the trains arrived on time.
Since then, the company and state have been working to improve the fleet and commuter rail infrastructure, while expanding and better training its workforce, and planning for foreseeable problems, like winter.
The commuter rail's on-time performance — considered to be a train that completes its full journey and arrives no later than 5 minutes past schedule — has averaged about 90% for the past year, according to the company. Over the last 10 years, the performance average has been about 86%.
Its current record, he said, "is the strongest performance we've had so far in our contract."
Officials would like to see that performance improve to an average of 95% — a rate more in line with some of European systems, Scorey said.
"There is this idea, in Germany for example, everything is perfectly clockwork and nothing is ever late, but it's not true," he said. "Typically best in class is about 95 to 96% on time."
Beyond working to improve overall reliability, Keolis and the MBTA are working to reduce major disruptions, officials said. They are also working on upgrading the trains themselves.
Currently there are 90 trains in service. About 40 are relatively new — purchased after 2014 — and about 50 are older, some dating back to the early '70s.
Keolis and the MBTA have invested $100 million to upgrade 37 of the older trains. By the end of this year, 10 trains will be completed. The rest will be done by 2021.
There is also a plan to purchase 80 new, two-level coaches starting in 2022 to increase capacity, reliability and passenger experience, according to Keolis.
Prepared for winter
Still, it's impossible to completely eradicate breakdowns and other issues that cause delays.
"We want to be 100%, but we also we know we live in a challenging environment," DiAdamo said.
Part of that challenging environment is getting ready for whatever the winter throws at the region.
"I think we are prepared. I think we learn from every winter," Scorey said. "Every winter brings a slightly different challenge, and you learn from that."
Scorey said Keolis has invested in equipment like heated switches and special plows called snow fighters to keep the trains running during a bad storm. The company has also learned to keep trains moving on the tracks all night during a snowstorm, even without passengers, to ensure they will be ready to go in the morning.
It has also stockpiled necessary supplies, like salt.
"Every winter we have been better prepared than the winter before," he said. "What we have seen in the last two or three years is that we bounce back very quickly."
However, disruptions can never be completely avoided in winter, or any other season, he said. "Unfortunately it can still happen from time to time, and will at any railroad."
During the meeting with editors, Scorey also touted Keolis's new "route manager" program as a step the company has taken to improve service and reliability.
Pioneered in Haverhill, the program focuses one manager per line. Before the program, conductors and assistant conductors reported to a group of managers. With this change, it's one person's job to ensure smooth operations on each route.
With these improvements, Scorey says more people from the Merrimack Valley and North Shore are using the commuter rail. Ridership is up 22% in the last five years.
According to Scorey, this bucks the trend of most commuter rail systems, which have seen ridership stay flat or decline.
He attributes it to more people moving outside of Boston and using the commuter rail to get work.
"We'd like to attribute it to an improvement in service, too," he said.
Satisfaction seems to be on the rise as well.
On the Newburyport line, a survey rated overall rider satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 7. In spring 2015, the rating averaged 3.9. Four years later it was 5.5.
In Haverhill, satisfaction rose from 3.9 to 5.3 over the same period.
While both the state and Keolis plan short-term improvements to the commuter rail, in the background the state is looking at the future of the system, exploring modernization. Options under consideration include using electric trains.
"We want to be an A-plus service while we are looking at ways to transform the system," DiAdamo said.
After a recent fare increase, DiAdamo said he knew of no further increases were on the horizon at this time. He also noted that the MBTA is planning a fare study to see if certain times or routes can be made more affordable.
"We know fares are a challenge," he said. However, "we do need to pay for the system we run."
Both Scorey and DiAdamo said there is a lot more work to be done.
"When we took over the contract there was a big challenge, and there still is a big challenge," Scorey said. "We firmly believe we are making real progress in many aspects in what we deliver every day."
Commuter Rail - Customer Satisfaction
(Scale of 1-7)
Spring 2015, 3.9; Spring 2019, 5.3
Spring 2015, 3.9; Spring 2019, 5.5
Spring 2015, 3.9; Spring 2019, 4.8