As part of A Better City’s Boston Forward Together initiative, A Better City welcomed Keolis CEO and General Manager for Commuter Services, David Scorey, on March 18th to speak with members about the innovative changes to Commuter Rail scheduling and service provision that go into effect on April 5, 2021.
CEO and General Manager David Scorey started off the conversation with some background information on Keolis and details on the division of responsibility and contractual relationship with the MBTA. He noted that Keolis is a global company with over 60,000 employees worldwide that operates every mode of transit service. Here in the Commonwealth, he explained Keolis has been responsible for operating and maintaining the MBTA Commuter Rail since 2015, with a recently extended contract until 2026. GM Scorey clarified that contractually, Keolis is responsible for running and scheduling service, including hiring staff and maintaining the Commuter Rail assets. The company is not responsible for capital investments and related work (e.g. tracks, signals, bridges, or for setting fare revenue). He noted that Keolis has and maintains a collaborative relationship with the MBTA.
The General Manager acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted both the workforce and service side for Keolis Commuter Rail services. He noted that the company took early action to safeguard the health of its employees and the travelling public, including instituting a paid leave policy for all employees (10 days paid sick time) and putting in place rigorous cleaning and disinfecting protocols on Commuter Rail vehicles (e.g. mask mandate, fogging, disinfecting).
As reported by GM Poftak at the recent Boston Forward Together conversation on MBTA service and workplace return, GM Scorey confirmed that Commuter Rail ridership plummeted in March when Governor Baker issued the State of Emergency and shutdown non-essential businesses. He noted that ridership has been steady at approximately 10%-13% of pre-COVID-19 levels with an increase in off-peak use.
During the Forging Ahead process, GM Scorey said that the MBTA approached Keolis about cost saving measures, including reduction of fleet size as well as weekend and evening. In January, Keolis eliminated weekend service on all but five routes. With cost savings top of mind, emerging new work trends evolving, and a desire to advance toward a regional rail model, Keolis put together a more flexible, “regional rail” type schedule for spring 2021. The new schedule offers a more reliable and predicable schedule, e.g. clock-face (trains every hour, for example), smooths out service during the day to attract off-peak riders, and allows more traditional commuters flexibility when they return to the workplace. However, because of the all-day service, there will be fewer peak trains, which GM Scorey said may not be needed post-pandemic if there is an uptick in teleworking. GM Scorey highlighted that this type of schedule is used in other countries with a great deal of success and moves the MBTA Commuter Rail one step closer toward regional rail-type service. Keolis is hopeful this new schedule will attract new riders and shift use of the Commuter Rail from a “reluctant purchase” to a “purchase of choice.”
The new schedule goes into effect on April 5, 2021, and is available on the MBTA website. GM Scorey hopes it will be a resource to companies as they build out their return the workplace plans.
General Manager Scorey provided a quick overview of additional next steps Keolis and the MBTA will take to prepare for workplace return. These include continuing to building awareness on safety and COVID-19 mitigation protocols, launching a targeted marketing campaign to welcome back riders, and thinking about a broader range of flexible fare options for non-traditional commuters who will ride the Commuter Rail but who won’t need a monthly pass.
Keolis will be monitoring ridership trends over the summer and into the fall to assess demand.
Keolis has some operational flexibility to inject rolling stock to respond to acute demand. Like other MBTA modes, “run-as-directed” trains are not scheduled and therefore the travelling public is not aware in advance that additional service is available. If higher peak demand persists, Keolis is able to add in service but any changes in scheduling of that nature require at least one month to put in place—the company will have a “Plan B” in place in September that can be rolled if needed, but again, with a four week lead time.
The MBTA is responsible for large scale capital investments; however, Keolis does has a “wish list” of small projects and is communicating with the MBTA about other priority projects that could, for example, help advance regional rail.
Keolis does not have specific date for restoration of weekend service. Ultimately, the decision on service restoration lies with the MBTA. They will continue to monitor ridership and if the MBTA determines there is sufficient demand a decision will be made at the time.