The Fairmount Line has seen significant performance improvements in recent months, according to data provided by the company that runs the MBTA’s commuter rail service. Fairmount’s on-time and on-schedule rating was 97 percent in December, making it one of the two most efficient lines in the commuter rail system.
The improvements are in sharp contrast to a dismal week in early October when a key morning train — Train 750— was cancelled for five consecutive days, shaking confidence among the line’s already lower-than-hoped-for ridership.
David Scorey, a veteran railroad engineer and manager who assumed the role of general manager for Keolis in Massachusetts last fall, said that the company has learned from its mistakes and has corrected the failures that led to the cancellations.
“That was wrong. It shouldn’t have happened that way,” Scorey said of the October mishap that left scores of commuters stranded on Fairmount platforms in Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Dorchester. Scorey told the Reporter in an interview on Monday that the main cause for the service interruptions— a shortage of coaches in the overall rail system— has been corrected.
The Fairmount Line — which connects Readville and South Station— is one of 13 routes operated by Keolis, a French company that won a state contract to service the Commonwealth’s commuter rail system in 2014. The line has consistently underperformed on ridership figures, even as the state has continued to build additional stations— and improve existing ones— in Dorchester and Mattapan over the last decade.
This week, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a $16.97 million contract to build a brand new Blue Hill Avenue station in Mattapan near Cummins Highway. The line presently serves about 1,300 passengers per day, according to MassDOT, the state’s transportation department.
While the MBTA is responsible for promoting the use of the line and setting the fare schedule that could also impact ridership, it is Keolis that plays the pivotal role in making sure the trains run on time as scheduled.
In December, the Boston Globe reported that the Fairmount Line was hit the hardest by a surge in cancellations across the commuter rail system that spiked in October 2016. The line had recorded twice as many cancellations than any other line in the system— a problem that peaked when a backlog of coach inspections resulted in a week-long flurry of cancellations.
The Globe’s report — and subsequent statements of concern from elected officials— prompted Keolis to take what Scorey has characterized as “extraordinary” steps to make sure that the Fairmount train schedule is not unfairly undermined.
The key factor that triggered the disruptions across the system that were particularly acute on the Fairmount corridor were related to the federally-mandated inspections of coaches. A significant segment of the system’s existing fleet of 365 coaches — as many as 30 on a given day last October— were unavailable for use as they awaited mandatory, four-year inspections, Scorey said. The lingering after-effects of the 2014 winter onslaught— that left some coaches damaged and caused residual delays to inspections— complicated the situation.
In the immediate aftermath of the week-long disruption, Scorey and the Keolis team ordered up a costly third-party inspection to eliminate the backlog. The company has also added 85 new employees— some of whom allow for seven day-a-week inspections in the company’s key facility in Somerville.
“I don’t anticipate anything like that happening again,” said Scorey, “This has been transformational in terms of our capacity and on-time performance. The trend now is consistently above target.”
Data charts shared with the Reporter illustrate what Scorey means— the company shoots for 90 percent On-Time Performance (OTP) as its target number. Over the last thirty days, the system has been surpassing that number on all but three of its commuter lines. And the Fairmount Line in particular has excelled— with a 99.8 percent record, according to the company’s monthly operational report shared with the Reporter.
Mela (Bush) Miles, a Four Corners resident who leads the Fairmount-Indigo Transit Coalition, said that she has been impressed with the level of responsiveness from Keolis and its senior management. Scorey has reached out to her — and other Fairmount activists— to apologize and explain when a train is cancelled.
"We let folks in the community know about that— and it was appreciated," said Miles. "We view [Keolis] as an ally and not an adversary. We want these trains to work."
Rep. Russell Holmes has been encouraged by the data he's seen as well.
"They've changed their system so that someone in senior management has to okay any cancellation on the line," said Holmes. "That's a big improvement."
Miles says that the current posture from advocates who want better access and service on the Fairmount Line is "vigilance."
"There's a huge social impact when these trains are cancelled. These are communities where people are already living day to day. We need this line to work," she said.