By Bob Salsberg, Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) – The breakdowns and delays that plagued the area’s commuter rail system over the winter were “unacceptable,” state transportation officials said Tuesday, as they pledged to change maintenance procedures and invest in new equipment to prevent similar problems in the future.

The officials, including Department of Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority general manager Richard Davey, were called before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee to explain the failures that angered and frustrated commuters during one of Boston’s harshest winters in years. Perhaps the most notorious breakdown occurred on Feb. 28, when a Worcester-bound train stalled in Newton, turning a normal 80-minute trip into a four-hour ordeal for passengers.

Mullan told lawmakers that the transportation officials wanted to “make clear that the level of service our customers experienced this past winter season was absolutely unacceptable.”

“We are not here today to make excuses,” he said. “Rather, we are here to take responsibility for our shortcomings this winter and to assure customers … we are actively taking steps to address the problems that led to the breakdown in service and to ensure they never happen again.”

Davey said the MBTA likely would make a decision by the end of the year on whether to renew its contract with the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, the private venture contracted to operate commuter rail lines. The contract with the MBCR runs through mid-2013, but Davey said at least 18 months likely would be needed if the agency picks a new contractor or takes over operation of the system itself.

Davey said 78 percent of commuter trains operated on time during December, January and February, when the city was blasted by several heavy snowstorms.

“This was not good enough, but it’s important to point out that during those three months we did operate 27,160 trains on time, providing thousands and thousands of passengers with safe, reliable service during some of the worst winter weather Boston has seen in years,” he said.

Davey also noted that, unlike some other transit systems in the Northeast, commuter rail never shut down or severely curtailed service even during the most ferocious of snowstorms.

Davey and Mullan said a full report on the winter failures likely would be completed and released next month but they already had identified and moved to correct many of the most serious issues.

A top priority, the officials said, was replacing or overhauling aging equipment. To that end, the MBTA in February took delivery of two new locomotives, the first new ones bought by the system in two decades. Twenty new locomotives are on order for 2013, and 75 new coaches are slated to arrive next year.

Meanwhile, nearly two dozen of the oldest locomotives in the system have been given main engine overhauls, Mullan said.

Former MBTA executive James O’Leary, now chairman of the MBCR, said that “doesn’t make our fleet young, it only makes it younger.”

O’Leary told the committee that commuter rail ridership had increased 400 percent over the last 30 years but there had been little equipment modernization.

He acknowledged that the Feb. 28 breakdown of the Worcester-bound train was not due to aging equipment but instead resulted from a poor decision by staff to prematurely return to service a locomotive that had experienced mechanical problems earlier in the day.

Technicians have been retrained to look for early signs of maintenance issues, officials said.

Adding to the frustration for many commuters during the winter was a frequent lack of timely notification about service delays, communication problems that the MBTA also was addressing, Davey said.

The agency had begun using Twitter feeds to send out service alerts and quadrupled capacity on its website, he said, and was inviting passengers to send in photos of any broken or substandard equipment they encounter.

The committee, chaired by Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, and Sen. Thomas McGee, D-Lynn, took testimony only from officials at Tuesday’s oversight hearing. It scheduled another hearing for May 3, when riders would be invited to speak.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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