MA: State Seeks Bids for Commuter Rail Service

By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- The MBTA has set in motion a process that could lead to a change the private company that provides commuter rail service by sometime next summer.

On Friday, the state will send out a request for qualified bidders, hoping to attract the interest of the national and international railway companies capable of operating one of the largest commuter rail operations in the country.

The system carries 144,000 passengers per day, with service based at two downtown Boston hubs and running on 14 rail lines to 175 Massachusetts cities and towns.

Since 2003, the rail system has been run by a Boston-based private consortium that came together specifically to run the suburban lines, called the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company. MBCR's original contract with the T was due to expire in 2008 but was extended until 2013.

"MBCR has always been a reliable and responsive partner with the MBTA," MBCR spokesman Scott Farmelant told the News Service. "Every instance MBCR has learned lessons and applied them."

In the summer of 2006 the MBTA heard from countless customers about the broken air conditioning in the cars, but by the following year 98 to 99 percent of the cars had properly working systems and the most common complaint about air conditioning was the chilliness in the cars, Farmelant said.

While MBCR has reacted to rider demands, other international railway companies have made strides as well.

"I think it has been the plan for the last couple of years to go out to bid on the contract," said Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, who said there are more credible railway companies now than there were years earlier. "I'm hopeful that there will be a number of bidders."

In planning for its bidding process, the MBTA is considering a longer contract period of up to 15 years, instead of the more standard five to eight-year contract length. That might attract more bidders, according to a presentation by MassDOT to the MBTA board of directors on Tuesday.

The longer contract length might also allow for the private vendor to purchase some of the train equipment. Currently, all capital purchases are made by the MBTA while the MBCR handles the operations. An alternative arrangement could reduce some state costs.

But Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said it might not make financial sense for the private vendor to pay for those purchases because the MBTA might have a higher credit rating than the winning bidder, allowing it to borrow money at lower rates. He said the MBTA's credit rating is higher than the state's rating. Whatever the terms, a contract will likely be worth several billion dollars if it runs 15 years, Regan said.

"It's a big commitment," Regan said. "It's huge."

According to MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera, the bidding process itself will cost $3 million. Regan said the review the state gave to the MBTA board about the process that will be used to pre-screen potential bidders is an unusual level of oversight.

"Under normal circumstances, staff would just take care of this, but this is such a big deal," Regan said.

Before MBCR, Amtrak ran the commuter rail. According to Regan and Farmelant, the national railway company devoted little attention to its suburban commuters in Massachusetts. When the MBTA went out to bid about a decade ago, Amtrak decided not to try for it, Farmelant said. Amtrak was making an 11.5 percent profit from the railways, but the new contract limited MBCR to 6.2 percent, he said.

MBCR is a partnership between French-based transportation company Veolia Transdev, Montreal-based manufacturer Bombardier and Boston-based transportation management company Alternate Concepts, Farmelant said. He said MBCR would bid on the upcoming contract.

In 2011, commuters complained about persistently late trains on the commuter rail system, and MBCR responded by upgrading its maintenance facility and changing maintenance practices, which reduced late trains caused by mechanical failures, Farmelant said.

Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey was general manager of MBCR before taking over the top position at the MBTA. Davey's "meet the general manager" activity of approaching passengers on platforms originated at MBCR, Farmelant said.

Regan said Davey had recused himself from the bidding process because of his previous employment at MBCR, which raised questions for Regan about how the process would be handled.

"One of the questions I ask is who's signing this contract," Regan said. "It's a very expensive contract."

MBCR has done "a pretty good job" considering the "age and condition of the system," Regan said.

A report last September by the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts found that more than half of the commuter rail's locomotives date back to the 1970s and "nearly all are at or past the manufacturer's recommended lifespan of 25 years."

The system includes 133 stations carrying more than 144,000 passengers over tracks controlled by the MBTA and three other, private railway companies, according to a state report and Farmelant.

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