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Is it Fair to Blame Commuter Rail Woes on Private Operators?

Recent problems on the commuter rail operations contracted out by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and Denver's Regional Transportation District caught the eye of Governing's transportation and infrastructure reporter.
November 28, 2016, 11am PST | Irvin Dawid
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Denver's recent problems with crossing gates on its new A and B Lines were posted here on Nov. 9. Had it not been for a waiver granted by the Federal Railroad Administration on Nov. 5, both lines, which began operation this year, would have shut down.

In addition to a fine for missing on-time performance, "Denver Transit Partners, the private company that oversees the rail,...has had to pay $250,000 a month for signaling issues, or about $1.25 million so far," reports Daniel C. Vock for Governing, referring to the 'flaggers' needed at grade crossings because the gates have not been performing correctly.

“We’re in a bit of a world of hurt," said John Thompson, the executive project director of Denver Transit Partners. "There’s no question about that, because we didn’t see that we’d be faced with these deductions when we bid these contracts six years ago."

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is in the third year of an eight- to 12-year contract with Paris-based Keolis Commuter Services. The company, also has contracts with Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and bus operations in other states.

"Keolis has paid more than $12 million in fines in its first two years of running commuter rail for MBTA," reports Volk. This year it has paid another $1 million in fines.

While the fines may not seem like much in the context of a 12-year deal worth roughly $4.2 billion, Keolis has said that it is losing money on its Boston-area service.

At the same time, Keolis boasts of setting a recent record for on-time performance rate for all lines. Similarly, before things went south in Denver, the A Line received kudos for its electrified, level-boarding service, complete with positive train control, a first for commuter rail lines.

If private contractors are to take the blame for commuter rail problems, who takes the blame for agency-operated services? New Jersey Transit comes to mind, and Metro-North's safety record has been criticized by the Federal Railroad Administration. 

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Published on Tuesday, November 22, 2016 in Governing
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