There’s a New Commuter Rail Operator In Town

For the first time in a decade, a different company will be in charge of running the "Purple Line."

Image via MBCR

Image via MBCR

On July 1, the price to take the MBTA won’t be the only thing different about riders’ commutes. In what officials say will be a seamless transition, the keys to the Commuter Rail’s day-to-day operations will also change hands.

After winning an eight-year, $2.6-billion-dollar contract to run the Commuter Rail back in January, Keolis Commuter Services, a subdivision of a worldwide transit agency with operations in the U.S., Canada, and France, has been taking on the challenge of swiftly building a presence in Massachusetts from the ground up.

The company has now successfully occupied a new office space in Boston’s Independence Wharf, hired additional staff to oversee the behind-the-scenes management operations, and held frequent meetings with union representatives to iron out the details of workers’ contracts—a point of contention that current employees feared would go awry.

But despite some concerns leading up to the hand-off, things are on track for a smooth rollout when Keolis debuts their services in the Commonwealth to the 127,000 daily passengers that take the system’s 14 lines. “We are anxiously awaiting our start date,” said Gerald C. Francis, deputy general manager of Keolis Commuter Services, during an interview with Boston.

Beginning at rush hour on July 1, Keolis will replace the former operators, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail service (MBCR), which has been manning the tracks for the last decade. “What you are going to see is a seamless transition,” said Francis. “Schedules will be the same, operators will come to work, and basically it’s going to be the same work being performed on the last day of June continuing on July 1. We will be out there, but I don’t think anyone will notice the difference.”

At least right away, he said.

While much of the standards will remain the same, including upholding the current contracts with Commuter Rail workers after some slight renegotiations, Keolis has promised that riders will see cleaner trains, updated WiFi services, and a new, fully-staffed customer service call center in the near future. “Part of our theme is to think like a passenger. Our focus is on learning more from our customer, learning more about the Commuter Rail environment, and expanding on it,” said Francis.

MBCR officials said it’s been a “professional transition” with relatively no issues besides making sure the torch stays lit. “We have been working closely with the T to make sure they have all the information they need,” said Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for MBCR. “It’s like the mother of all punch lists. It’s an extremely laborious process to make sure you get everything delivered effectively.”

But so far, so good.

Mac Daniel, a spokesman for Keolis Commuter Services, said details about bigger changes to the train operations, as the transition continues, are yet to come, but he shared insight about some of the immediate projects. For starters: cleanliness. Daniel said there will be a complete audit done on train cars, which will be cleaned inside and out, including polishing the metal bases of the passenger cars, and reupholstering any damaged seats.

Keolis will also have to do some in-house marketing maintenance to change the logos and markings on trucks and conductors’ sports coats, which currently have the MBCR’s logo on them. “That’s on schedule to be changed out as soon as July 1,” said Daniel. “But the look and colors of the trains won’t change.”

As for the new customer service facility, Daniel said it will run seven days a week, and be open from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. to field complaints and comments from riders. “It won’t be a run-of-the-mill call center,” Daniel said. “Whatever actions need to take place [to fix a problem], they will have a system to make it happen. It’s what passengers are going to really see Keolis bring to the table, and that’s through customer service outreach.”

Daniel said the company’s also putting some extra muscle behind their social media presence to connect with riders. The Commuter Rail service just rolled out their new Twitter account, @MBTA_CR, to keep riders in the loop about delays and other news, this week. The announcement about the account came not long after the MBCR told its own followers that their Twitter handle would soon go dark.

Keolis is also launching a Facebook page where they will post information for riders.

“Twitter is going to be an important part of this customer service outreach that Keolis does. We will have people responding to it in real-time. The customers can get answers that they might not be able to get out on the rails,” Daniel said. “We really do plan to blow up social media when it comes to servicing the customers and using it as a major tool for outreach.”

As for more internal changes, Keolis’s contract with the MBTA stipulates that performance incentive payments will no longer be doled out to the transit operator for on-time service, something the MBCR benefitted from during their time as operators.

Currently, the MBCR can reap performance bonuses for having trains show up when they are supposed to. “The new contract sets a ‘no excuses’ expectation that the operator will run the trains on time,” MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott said back in January, when Keolis won the bid. Scott said adding financial disincentives of up to $12 million per year will also be imposed if service is shoddy.

Sitting down with current MBCR employees, who will maintain their jobs when Keolis assumes leadership, was also a big part of the transition process. The existing workforce for the Commuter Rail service—2,000 employees in all—will remain part of the team.

Francis said as part of the contract agreement they had to renegotiate contracts with 14 unions, a process they started back in mid-March and April. He said there were 13 different agreements that needed to be ratified with 14 bargaining groups—two of the bargaining groups combined in their negotiations—and while an arduous task, things went well. “We maintained a good working relationship,” said Francis. “We met and everybody was focused on—we went back and forth, I’ll be honest with you—but everyone was focused on coming together on agreements, knowing that the July 1 date was coming. I really applaud everybody on their efforts.”

Keolis also held informational meetings to tap into employees’ brains and get to know the staff, while also working with the MBTA to “get educated about the system,” Francis said. “It’s been really helpful that we have an opportunity to have an interaction with the existing work force, bringing us up to speed.”

All that’s left from here is to patiently wait as the days roll on, before the company finally gets their hands on the wheel.

“I’ll tell you, I’m proud,” said Francis. “The Keolis team is in here, and the existing Commuter Rail team is here—we had five months. I can’t tell you, it’s fantastic. Each day I’m looking forward to it more and more. Hearing from employees got me more pumped up, and things really fell in line. We are almost at the finish line, and I’m ready to cross the finish line. This whole team is ready to cross the finish line.”