Infrastructure & Environment

Pushing Amtrak Off The Track

Boston's regional commuter rail system has chosen a company other than Amtrak to run its trains, signaling new competition for the commuter railway business.
by | February 2003
 

Boston's regional commuter rail system has chosen a company other than Amtrak to run its trains, signaling new competition for the commuter railway business.

The Massachusetts Bay Railroad Co. will take over operation of the nation's fifth-largest commuter railroad from Amtrak in July. For years, Amtrak has been the only viable vendor for transit agencies that wanted to outsource rail operations. The Massachusetts transit agency known as MBTA is taking a five-year $1.1 billion gamble that Mass Bay can beat Amtrak's service and do it for less.

MBTA officials, tired of dirty stations and uncollected fares, were especially irked last summer when financially-strapped Amtrak, seeking a congressional bailout, threatened to shut down commuter trains along with its inter-city service. "We needed to insulate Massachusetts from the woes of the national railroad," says MBTA chief Michael Mulhern.

Mass Bay is an international consortium of three companies with extensive rail experience. Connex, a French firm that manages rail systems from Europe to Australia, will handle management issues, along with Alternate Concepts, a Boston company founded by former MBTA officials. Bombardier Transportation out of Canada will maintain the rolling stock. Mass Bay agreed to a set of performance incentives, in addition to penalties for poor service, and promises to save MBTA $59 million over five years. If the arrangement works, transit agencies around the country may seek to copy it.

That would be a blow to Amtrak, which relies on commuter rail contracts for 14 percent of its revenues. Amtrak bowed out of the Boston bidding early, arguing that MBTA's demands were too costly. "This is an isolated case," says Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel. "We're competitive elsewhere."

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