DAN GRABAUSKAS, AN INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR brought in a couple months ago to serve as the MBTA’s executive director of commuter rail for a year, gave his first briefing to the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday.
Grabauskas said his report, as well as others to come down the road, would strike a different tone than what Keolis officials have been providing. Instead of focusing on operational metrics, his reports will focus on the customer experience, he said. Instead of explaining why service problems crop up, Grabauskas said he will focus on finding solutions to the system’s problems.
In his presentation, Grabauskas, a former general manager of the T and state secretary of transportation who is being paid $30,000 a month, indicated he will offer more insight into the inner workings of the problems with commuter rail. He said he is currently working to defuse unhealthy tensions between Keolis and MBTA officials, trying to sort out contract claims and counterclaims between the T and its commuter rail operator, and developing his own independent analysis of what’s causing delays.
Grabauskas said the biggest cause of delays on the commuter rail system is something that is not new – antiquated locomotives that tend to break down far too often. But he also disclosed that Keolis is paying fines right now for not having enough assistant conductors to open train doors and help customers disembark more quickly. Through September 30, Keolis has paid $990,226 in fines, an average of $110,025 a month. Grabauskas said the problem should be addressed soon when 32 new assistant conductors complete their course work and another 32 are ushered into the training program.
Overall, Grabauskas seemed to provide a fairly balanced overview of the challenges facing Keolis. One of his charts, for example, reported that there had been 318 train cancellations this year through November 15, well below the 528 reported in 2016 over that same time period and the 1,391 in 2015. He noted Keolis had no train cancellations at all during the week of October 16, the first time that had happened in two years.
Members of the control board urged Grabauskas to be tougher in evaluating Keolis. Several said he should use customer-weighted numbers in reporting delays, since those numbers give more weight to delays on the system’s busiest lines.
Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, urged Grabauskas to not just focus on the day-to-day operations of the commuter rail system but also to come up with a way to make it commercially viable. He said the T is spending $300 million a year on capital investments in commuter rail and another $300 million a year on operations.
Aiello said the T’s commuter rail operation is not sustainable. “It is a very challenged commercial enterprise,” he said. “We’re simply spending way too much money on too little ridership.”
State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack challenged Grabauskas on a report detailing repair programs to return broken-down locomotives to service. The control board authorized nearly $50 million to refurbish commuter rail locomotives, but Pollack said she was disheartened to see in his report that three of the programs would not be finished until 2019. She said when the repair money was approved the expectation was that the work would be done in 2018.