Making sure transit operators stay on track

Transit riders in Boston are hoping that replacing the operator of its commuter rail system will lead to more trains arriving on time.

Transit riders tired of waiting for late trains and wishing they were cleaner when they do finally arrive should look at what just happened in Boston. Officials in charge of the city’s commuter rail system decided to ditch the operator that has been running the trains for the last 10 years and, instead, opted to award a new contract to a company promising to meet tougher standards for reliability, cleaner trains and better communication with customers.

The current operator of the city’s commuter rail line, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail (MBCR) – a consortium of three companies, including Montreal-based Bombardier – largely fell out of favour with passengers in recent years due to the tardiness of its trains. Even when they did show up, they were often dirty or the air conditioners weren’t working. At one point, as many as 30 percent of trains were running late.

While the MBCR says that most of it trains are now running on time, one of the reasons for the improved performance is the laundry list of excuses it can rely on to boost its metrics – including medical or police emergencies, snowstorms and overcrowded platforms. If those are included in calculations for tardiness, the operator would be below its target for being on time, according to one analysis.

Since it’s been in charge, ridership has dropped – in sharp contrast to other commuter rail systems across North America that have added a substantial number of riders over the past decade. Average weekday ridership has fallen by 12.5 percent over that time, even though the population has grown in the counties surrounding Boston that it serves.

Thinking there must be a better way to run the system, transit officials opened up the next contract to bidding and put a greater emphasis on customer satisfaction. In the new contract the operator no longer has built-in excuses for why its trains are running late. Each time it suffers a delay, it must make an application to the regulator on why it was a result of forces outside of its control.

It will also no longer be offered incentive payments for providing good service; instead, it will be fined if it fails to perform adequately. The fines could reach up to as much 90% of the operator’s profits after the first year, when they will be capped at 75%.

The contract will also place greater emphasis on cleanliness of stations and trains by ensuring that half of the fines that can be applied to the new operator concern customer satisfaction outside of just being on time – including heating and air conditioning that works, sufficient staffing levels and greater communication. When the trains do break down, the operator could be made to provide alternative transit to those passengers left stranded.

The new operator – the French-based Keolis – has promised to meet all those new standards at a lower price than MBCR. Overall, its offer will save Massachusetts as much as $254 million over the life of the contract.

While the unions that represent the workers have come out against the new contract – and warned that the savings will come at the expense of service – the board of regulators that had the final say unanimously approved it. And it’s easy to see why. Transit passengers have been hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to better service: now they have one.

Brady Yauch is an economist and Executive Director of the Consumer Policy Institute (CPI). You can reach Brady by email at: bradyyauch (at) consumerpolicyinstitute.org or at (416) 964-9223 ext 236.

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