There’s No Excuse for a ‘No-Excuses’ Contract With Excuses

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Despite a “no-excuses” contract with Keolis Commuter Services for the commuter rail system, the MBTA has dropped the target on-time performance rate to 92% from its historical level of 95%. As Pioneer has shown before, this is a step in the wrong direction for the T. On-time performance is the most important metric for determining a commuter rail system’s performance and reliability; high marks improve rider confidence and can boost ridership.

The MBTA’s contract with Keolis indicates that 92% on-time performance is the remedial performance level, i.e. the lowest acceptable value. In fact, achieving on-time performance levels below the remedial performance level for two consecutive months, or for three months within a twelve month period, is grounds to terminate the agreement unless Keolis and the T agree to an improvement plan.

After a rocky start and a tumultuous winter, Keolis’ on-time performance finally rose to expected levels in the last four weeks, averaging 90.10% for Southside trains and 95.14% for Northside service. It doesn’t make sense to lower target performance standards just as Keolis begins to reach their existing goals.


Recent MBTA Commuter Rail On-Time Performance as Calculated by Keolis and Pioneer Institute:

  Southside Keolis Southside Pioneer Northside Keolis Northside Pioneer
Week of Aug. 28th 88.22% 90.39% 92.52% 95.66%
Week of Sep. 4th 89.82% 89.20% 95.86% 96.06%
Week of Sep. 11th 88.83% 87.68% 95.38% 94.79%
Week of Sep. 18th 90.28% 93.11% 94.65% 94.04%
Four-week average 89.29% 90.10% 94.60% 95.14%


In an effort to determine monthly performance levels (Keolis only releases weekly reports), Pioneer attempted to replicate Keolis’ reporting methodology but we were unable to reach the same conclusions as the rail operator. Keolis couldn’t explain the variances, but agreed that our calculations were correct and that their published data was not necessarily so.

Since January, the MBTA only reports basic on-time performance levels for the commuter rail, including less detail than in the past and omitting any data regarding bus or subway performance. Pioneer has consistently called for increased transparency in MBTA reporting, specifically in regards to these recent changes (see here, here, and here). It’s bad form for a public transportation agency not to publish basic performance data; it’s inexcusable for an agency to publish faulty data.

Keolis isn’t fluffing the numbers to make themselves look good either.

Our initial finding, and the example we supplied to Keolis, is the on-time performance report for the week ending on August 28th. In the report, Southside and Northside performance totals are given as 88.22% and 92.52% respectively. Our calculations put the figures at 90.39% and 95.66% instead. A review of ten other on-time performance reports showed similar disparities between reported performance and actual timeliness.

That wasn’t the first time Keolis’ on-time performance reports were inaccurate. The report dated April 24th claims that the Middelborough/Lakeville line had an on-time performance of 108% during afternoon peak hours. The April 3rd report, the first of the month, shows the Plymouth line with an on-time performance of 100%, yet the month-to-date figure for that line is listed as 88.89%.

Despite shortcomings on the part of Keolis, the MBTA is not following through on its “no-excuses” contract by properly penalizing Keolis. First, the T “forgave” over $7.5 million in fines to help Keolis live up to the terms of the agreement.  Then the T reduced the historical on-time performance target of 95 percent to the contract’s remedial performance level of 92 percent, despite recent improvements.   Finally, Keolis misinformed the public, and MassDOT, as to the quality of their performance.

If Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad (the former system operator and only other bidder on Keolis’ contract) made a responsible bid at a higher price which would have allowed the company to meet the contract’s requirements, than changing the terms of the contract mid-stream to help a lower bidder meet the same terms is wholly unfair.

Keolis needs to meet the requirements of the contract at the agreed upon price, and the MBTA must hold them to such a standard.

If the French rail giant won’t pick up the slack themselves, should they still be in charge of the commuter rail system?