By Allison McKinnon, The Sun Chronicle
Train pulls into Attleboro station. (Staff file photo by Tom Maguire.)
BOSTON – Calling commuter rail breakdowns and delays over the long, brutal winter “unacceptable,” transportation officials apologized to state legislators Tuesday and pledged to improve communication and review maintenance procedures to rebuild train service.
“We are committed to strengthening our operation and we are learning the lessons of this past winter to improve reliability for next winter,” MBTA General Manager Richard Davey told the Joint Committee on Transportation.
Davey was among officials from the MBTA, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company and Massachusetts Department of Transportation called in to testify about weather-related and mechanical failures that stranded countless commuters this winter.
Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan blamed the system’s aging locomotives for the delays. The MBTA is in the process of replacing or overhauling the engines that have exceeded their 20-year life expectancy.
“The commuter rail utilizes 60 locomotives each day, and we have 18 locomotives that are more than 20 years old,” he said. “We are aggressively trying to get improved equipment.” In January, the MBTA introduced to the fleet two 16-year-old locomotives – the newest in the state.
The diesel-electric locomotives were leased from the Utah Transit Authority, and the MBTA is in negotiations to lease seven additional locomotives from Utah, Davey said.
Mullan also blamed delays on track switches that short-circuited because heaters attached to them could not melt the snow fast enough.
Mullan said of the 1,800 workers the Massachusetts Bay Railroad Company employs, about 1,200 are maintenance workers.
Retraining them to look for early signs of equipment problems is a major part of the company’s plans to reduce future delays, he said.
Davey said the number of delays over the winter months were “unacceptable” for customers, and promised to improve communications to riders about delays. He said the MBTA likely would make a decision by the end of the year on whether to renew its contract with the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, the private venture contracted to operate commuter rail lines.
The contract with the MBCR runs through mid-2013, but Davey said at least 18 months likely would be needed if the agency picks a new contractor or takes over operation of the system itself.
Still, Davey tried to put the delays into context, noting that 2,800 trains operated with delays of nine minutes or less during one of Massachusetts’ harshest winters in years.
Davey said that while 78 percent of commuter trains ran on time from December through February, that simply wasn’t good enough.
He said the MBTA has streamlined the process of issuing alerts to commuter via text, email or on MBTA.com, as well as broadcasting information on an AM radio signal at commuter rail parking lots so commuters can wait for updates in their cars.
“During any storm, information is as important as the service itself,” Davey said.
Social media such as Twitter was used for the first time to update customers during storms this past winter and was also available for customers to register their opinions.
In a few weeks, Davey said the MBTA plans to unveil “Commuter Connect,” a new communication tool that will allow riders to take and send pictures of damaged MBTA vehicles or structures directly to the maintenance management team.
“This tool will greatly enhance the speed to address and potentially schedule repairs,” he said. “We will respond to 95 percent of these issues within five days. Even if it’s just to say ‘We’ll get back to you’ or ‘We’ve fixed it,’ our customers deserve answers.”
Former MBTA executive James O’Leary told the committee that commuter rail ridership had increased 400 percent over the last 30 years but there had been little equipment modernization.
The legislative committee, chaired by Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, and Sen. Thomas McGee, D-Lynn, took testimony only from officials at Tuesday’s oversight hearing. It scheduled another hearing for May 3, when riders would be invited to speak.