GERALD FRANCIS, the general manager of Keolis, the French company that operates the MBTA’s commuter rail system, is a man with an ambitious plan. He wants to make Eastern Massachusetts home to the number one commuter rail system in the US. That seems like a tall order for a system that basically fell apart last winter. Seated in the company’s spacious offices, near South Station, Francis makes the statement without flinching.
The veteran transit professional’s career has spanned more than 30 years, working in systems from greater Los Angeles and San Francisco/Silicon Valley to the Dallas area and metro Washington, DC. Francis, who was deputy GM of Keolis, unexpectedly found himself at the helm after his predecessor, Thomas Mulligan, was forced out following Keolis’s dismal winter performance.
It has been a bumpy road for Keolis Commuter Services, which took over MBTA commuter rail last year after wresting the operations and maintenance contract from the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail, which ran the system for a little more than a decade. An acrimonious legal battle and handoff followed.
Keolis has run up millions in fines for performance problems, which the MBTA turned around and directed the company to use to hire more staff. The company also generated an impressive amount of red ink, nearly $20 million in the first six months of the year.
Despite the psychic scars of the endless winter of 2015 and a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog, Francis is optimistic that Keolis can get MBTA commuter rail trains to run on time. In September, commuter rail hit its best September on-time performance numbers in nearly a decade. Trains were on-time, on average, 92 percent of the time. (Adjusted to take into account delays that Keolis could not control, the commuter rail operator’s September on-time performance rate was 94 percent.)
Since last winter, nothing has riled up commuter riders more than hastily publicized schedule changes on routes originating at North Station. Reverse commuters and people who work nontraditional hours squawked. Petitions circulated on Change.org. MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board asked for a briefing on commuter rail scheduling. State lawmakers and MBTA and MassDOT officials endured a barrage of tweets and phone calls.
Keolis officials provided input on the schedules, which had not changed in decades, but the MBTA designs them and has the final say. The MBTA, Keolis, and the consultant that the MBTA hired to direct the effort had been most concerned about making the schedules more efficient by reducing need to move locomotives from commuter rail line to another when breakdowns occur, which can cause delays elsewhere in the system.
But little consideration had gone into the commuter side of the equation, a major oversight that will be rectified with “extensive public engagement” in December, according to a MassDOT/MBTA joint statement. New schedules for North Station and South Station routes will be announced in the spring of 2016.
The scheduling hubbub pales in comparison to the wrath commuters unleashed on state transportation officials last winter. Keolis has been prepping furiously for the upcoming winter with new vehicles, workers, and procedures. “They should have reliable rolling stock this time,” says Paul Regan, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which oversees the MBTA on behalf of member communities.“ That takes away a lot of the excuses: They have got to be able to deliver the service with the new equipment that they have.”
Francis talked to CommonWealth about the coming winter, the maintenance backlog and scheduling challenges-before the MassDOT/MBTA walk back. The Keolis general manager is well aware that how the company handles the future snowstorms will be the company’s, and his, biggest test yet. “We are going to utilize all of our resources to insure that that we get through the winter and provide service,” he said.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
COMMONWEALTH: The MassINC Polling Group recently found that 54 percent of the people they surveyed think that the MBTA is not ready to handle winter weather. What do you make of that?
GERALD FRANCIS: Historic snowstorms took place in the latter part of January and through February. Each and every day after we went through those storms, we looked at lessons learned, what happened and what we could do differently. We run 63 locomotives a day, and we lost probably 19 locomotives during the winter. Since then we’ve gotten 40 new locomotives, we already have 37 on site. We’ve got traction motor combos ready to go. Our coach count is up where it needs to be; our staffing levels are where they need to be. We’ve had tabletop exercises [to go over possible winter scenarios]; we have gone through a lot to make ourselves ready for this winter. We have a point person, [Director of Quality and Performance Improvement] Kennon Foster, some refer to him as our “snow czar,” who has been looking at this. We have a plan that has been laid out. We tweak it each and every day that we think about something.
CW: One of the key concerns that commuter rail riders have is communication. You’ve hired about 30 new people to help communicate with passengers. How do you plan to change how riders are informed about delays and other problems due to weather?
FRANCIS: One of things we heard consistently from our customers is that we know that there may be some issues that take place on the commuter rail system but you have to inform us.What you’ll see now are passenger assistance personnel at the stations, including North Station, South Station, Back Bay, or wherever we need them, wherever the situation calls for they will be out there to physically meet the customers. It’s just another method of getting the information out along with our MBTA alert system, Twitter and so forth. If the trains are not going to run at least they will know that in advance and what the options are.
CW: How much leeway do Keolis workers have to respond to problems in the system without going up the chain of command?
FRANCIS: If anything happens now out there, the dispatchers are very capable of making the decisions on what has to be done. They don’t have to run it up the flagpole and get to me. They are very capable of gathering the information, making the decisions, and doing their best to try and keep the service going.
CW: How do you coordinate with the MBTA on issues like severe weather?
FRANCIS: When things happen, for example, like last winter, we have a situation room where we all sit. The MBTA is either over here with us or we are in touch by phone as soon as things happen. Myself and my deputy, we meet with the MBTA twice a week.
CW: How much input did you get from commuter rail riders on the North Side schedules?
FRANCIS: We worked with the MBTA on the commuter rail schedules and suggested changes, but the entire effort was initiated and was the child of the MBTA. Keolis has been listening to riders pretty much since March. We felt that this was a good opportunity for us to take a look at the schedules, assess them, and make some decisions based on running a more safe and efficient operation. When the MBTA gave us their ideas about the schedules, we looked at them from our standpoint as the operator: How many locomotives and how many coach cars it would take to make that schedule? Our input on it was, if the equipment was going to run at a certain time, we looked at it to see if we could meet the needs of what the schedule was that was provided to us.
CW: The MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board is cataloging the assets, apart from things like locomotives and passenger coaches that the system owns. Why has it been a major challenge to count other things in the system, such as the number of signals?
FRANCIS: I would just say this, there are other systems across the country that are also doing the same thing, assessing and evaluating their infrastructure. I’m not just talking about Boston: I’ve been involved with a couple of transit properties, we have to do a better job overall.
CW: Keolis does not set the fares but you do collect them. What are you doing to improve collection of fares?
FRANCIS: We had challenges during the winter. When we started losing equipment, say, for instance, on the Worcester line, a train had six coaches then went to five, then it went to four, it was difficult when the trains got packed with customers to get and check fares. When we transitioned over in July 2014, we had a chance to actually see where our staffing levels were, and they weren’t where they were supposed to be. So we immediately went into a hiring program. But the thing is you just can’t hire conductors and assistant conductors on a Monday and they go to work the following Monday. There is a recruitment process, there is an eight-week training program for conductors and assistant conductors, and 10 months for locomotive engineers. We are fully staffed.
As for complaints on fare collection, we haven’t been hearing about that lately. We also have a program called “Fare is fair.” We have gone out to North Station, South Station, Beverly, Salem, and other places to assure that we are checking passengers’ tickets prior to riders getting on the trains. And of course, our conductors are doing that as they walk through the trains. That program has been going for little over a month.
CW: Do you fine people if they don’t have a ticket?
FRANCIS: Right now, they are not fined. They are given a pass, saying that they did not pay their fare. You are supposed to have a ticket before you board the commuter rail train. We are hoping that the “Fare is fair” program helps. If you don’t have a ticket, we are teaching you how to buy it.
CW: Have you discussed fining fare evaders?
FRANCIS:No, not as yet.
CW: The MBTA is discussing possible fare increases. Does Keolis consult with the MBTA on fare levels?
FRANCIS: That’s completely up to the MBTA.
CW: What did you make of the condition of the MBTA commuter rail trains coaches, switches, and the system’s overall infrastructure when you arrived last year?
FRANCIS: The locomotive fleet is what moves the system. There were locomotives that did need a lot of work amongst equipment that we inherited in July. The MBTA went out and invested in this new fleet, the 40 locomotives that we got in. But we also knew that new locomotives were going to come on board as well. Our goal was to do our due diligence on the fleet that we inherited, and, when we got the new fleet in, to change out the older equipment.
CW: A good chunk of the MBTA $7.3 billion maintenance and modernization backlog is in the commuter rail system: 43 percent, roughly $3 billion. How can Keolis get MBTA commuter rail to be the number one commuter rail system in the US with that kind of backlog?
FRANCIS: We are working toward addressing the physical characteristics of this system. It’s getting to a point where we are looking at each line and we are understanding each line and what it takes to operate that particular line at a high on-time performance.
CW: The MBTA’s financial picture is pretty bleak Are you concerned about the MBTA’s inability to invest in the system to the degree that it needs?
FRANCIS: It’s been identified. One of things we are working with in the capital improvement program is to identify certain lines in the commuter rail system [that need work]. But we are still able to operate it the system and we’ll make the adjustments as we go.
CW: What was the curb appeal for Keolis of a system that is in such poor shape?
FRANCIS: I think Boston itself. This is one of the top commuter rail systems in the country. It is an opportunity for Keolis to come in and have the opportunity to really operate it. We think we are going to make a big difference [especially] now that the on-time performance is improving. Unfortunately, we had to go through the severe winter weather, but we learned a lot. I’m going to be honest with you, I have been in this business over 30 plus years: this is a tremendous opportunity for our employees and for myself. Our goal is to make this the number one commuter rail system in the US.