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Union Chief Blasts MBTA Management Of Commuter Rail

A transportation union chief laid into the MBTA on Tuesday, referring to new equipment as "wrecks on wheels" and charging the transit agency with micro-managing the commuter rail system.

Thomas Murray, president of Transport Workers Union Local 2054, told lawmakers on the Joint Transportation Committee that the commuter rail system's ability to fight back against the winter storms was hampered by a "dysfunctional" management system.

"The present system allows the MBTA to assess blame on the operator, Keolis, and evade responsibility in the MBTA's governance of the commuter rail operation," said Murray, whose union represents inspectors, mechanics and cleaners.

Separately, lawmakers pressed Keolis commuter rail officials on efforts to ensure fare collection and prevent fare evasion. Keolis has been cited nine times, for a total of $4,500 in penalties for failing to collect passenger fares, according to the MBTA.

Keolis, which is based in France and manages transportation programs in 15 countries, started operating the commuter rail in July under an eight-year contract.

Murray, the union official, said upper management transportation officials were unable to make decisions amid the snowstorms. "Nobody knew what the hell was going on," he said.

He added, referring to Gerald Francis, the general manager of Keolis Commuter Services, "You're paying Gerald to manage a system. Let him manage it."

Francis declined comment to reporters as he stepped into a State House elevator.

Asked to respond to Murray's comments, an MBTA spokesman said the agency is adding new coaches and locomotives every month.

"With proper maintenance, the new vehicles strongly enhance our concerted efforts to improve service reliability and increase capacity," the spokesman, Joe Pesaturo, said in an email. "The MBTA will continue to work closely with its Commuter Rail partner to provide customers with the level of service they expect and deserve."

Murray said the new equipment touted by the MBTA has been "plagued" with mechanical and structural defects.

Francis, in his testimony, acknowledged "some" of the new ten commuter rail locomotives in service were affected by the winter weather.

Keolis was expecting a total delivery of 40 new locomotives by the end of 2014, but has only received the ten that are in service. Francis said shortly after Keolis took over the commuter rail service in July, "we were told delivery of the new trains would be delayed by a year."

Pointing to the four major snowstorms that hit the Bay State this year, Francis added, "The [current] locomotive fleet, which is old and fragile on its best days, was devastated by the snow and ice."

He said 67 traction motors were disabled after coming into contact with snow, causing them to "short out."

The commuter rail finally returned to full service on Monday, March 30, after 33 trains were taken out of service earlier in the month.

Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth) pressed Keolis officials on commuter rail ridership, saying he has seen data that shows it's declining.

The parking system is "archaic" and depressing ridership, Hedlund said, adding that that Keolis inherited the system.

Hedlund asked how they are processing ridership numbers and how they are collecting fares. "I don't have a monthly pass but I've never been asked to pay a fare," Hedlund said.

He added: "It's a complaint that we receive from those who buy the passes and expect to pay."

Franck Dubourdieu, the deputy general manager, responded that Keolis has signed a proposal with the MBTA to have automatic devices installed at stations — "kind of cameras" — to capture people de-boarding and get a passenger count.

As for fare collection, Dubourdieu said the current system is "not modern," and it's a priority, as well as a management issue they have to address through the conductor and assistant conductor, who are charged with collecting fares.

Rep. Steven Howitt (R-Seekonk) relayed his experience on the commuter rail in February to Keolis officials.

Howitt said he had arrived for a nine o'clock train, and the station was "full of people, waiting." But the platform and the parking lot had not been cleared of the snow.

Just before the train came, a pick-up truck showed up with three men, apparently employed by the MBTA, and Howitt said he asked them why they hadn't appeared earlier to clean the area. One of the men said the Super Bowl had occurred the day before.

"There's a certain culture there that has to be addressed," Howitt said.

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