Keolis Takes Over MBTA Commuter Rail

French transportation company promises cleaner cars, better customer service for 67,000 daily Boston riders

(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - The trains look the same and make the same stops, and the crews are the same people who were working Monday -- but now with a new name on the sleeve, Keolis Commuter Services.

Early Tuesday morning, the French transportation company took on an 8- to 12-year contract worth potentially $3 billion to operate the 14-line Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail service used by 67,000 riders a day.

"Hopefully, they'll notice cleaner equipment," Keolis general manager Tom Mulligan told reporters gathered at South Station Tuesday morning. "That's going to be our main focus, number one, is the equipment, to be a little more updated and cleaner than it's been in the past."

"We try to put ourselves into the passenger's place, and we try to experience what they experience or anticipate what they're going to experience, and to make it a more reliable, enjoyable, and dependable experience," Mulligan said.

Among the few immediately visible changes: Redesigned and easier-to-read timetables, customer-service helpers sporting distinctive vests, and a new trip-planning smartphone app that will soon also allow riders to file complaints or suggestions, report lost items, or even set an alarm to be woken up, say, five minutes before their train arrives at their stop.

Keolis had the bad luck to take over on a day an errant lobster truck smacked into a bridge in Westwood and shut down morning rush-hour service on the Franklin line.

"With that exception, everything has run very, very smoothly," MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott said.

Scott said Keolis, which is taking over a system the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad ran for 11 years, is working under a redesigned contract that has better incentives for it to improve service.

"It's not about dancing bears," Scott said of the transition. "What people want is predictability, and they want to have an expectation that you're going to hit it on the mark every day ... My customer is looking for a total experience. So they're concerned about cleanliness. They're concerned about whether the heat is functioning when it's supposed to or the air conditioning when it's supposed to, whether stop announcements were made when they should."

Keolis officials said they got every complaint made to MBCR in 2013 and analyzed them to identify the top 10, top 20, and top 30 complaints riders want addressed.

Scott said at the end of the day, the most important measure of Keolis's success will be "butts in seats. We want to see that there's real growth in the ridership that takes place." A decade ago, Scott said, T commuter rail had a "market share" of about 12 percent of all daily trips in its service area, and that while absolute ridership has grown, T commuter rail market share has fallen since then to about 9 percent -- more riders, but a significantly smaller share of a larger demand for travel in and around Boston.

"What I hope changes the most," Scott said, "is that we wind up literally growing the system."

With videographer Mike Bellwin

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