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.

2 minute read

November 28, 2016, 11:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

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. 

Related in media:

Related in Planetizen

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 in Governing

Chicago Intercity Rail

Amtrak Ramping Up Infrastructure Projects

Thanks to federal funding from the 2021 infrastructure act, the agency plans to triple its investment in infrastructure improvements and new routes in the next two years.

September 25, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

Google maps street view of San Francisco alleyway.

Ending Downtown San Francisco’s ‘Doom Loop’

A new public space project offers an ambitious vision—so why is the city implementing it at such a small scale?

September 26, 2023 - Fast Company

Google street view of yellow "End Freeway 1/4 mile" sign on 90 freeway in Los Angeles, California.

Proposal Would Transform L.A.’s ‘Freeway to Nowhere’ Into Park, Housing

A never-completed freeway segment could see new life as a mixed-use development with housing, commercial space, and one of the county’s largest parks.

September 26, 2023 - Los Angeles Times

Traffic on the 405 interstate freeway through the Sepulveda Pass at Getty Center Drive in Los Angeles, California

Report: Bike Lanes Can't Make up for New Roads

If California wants to meet its climate goals, the state must stop funding its myriad road construction and expansion projects.

September 29 - Streetsblog California

Late evening view of downtown Minneapolis skyline with stone bridge in foreground

Minneapolis Affordable Housing Project Largest in 20 Years

The city opened its first large multifamily affordable housing complex in decades, but a recent court ruling against the Minneapolis 2040 rezoning plan could jeopardize future projects.

September 29 - Minnesota Public Radio

Close-up of vertical PARK sign on multistory urban parking garage.

NYC Mayor Proposes Eliminating Parking Minimums

Mayor Adams wants to stop requiring off-site parking for new buildings to reduce the costs of construction as part of the ‘City of Yes’ package of zoning reforms.

September 29 - StreetsBlog NYC

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.