In contrast to a rash of delays that often left passengers steaming and stuck in the cold last winter, the state’s commuter rail trains have mostly run on time so far this year.

In contrast to a rash of delays that often left passengers steaming and stuck in the cold last winter, the state’s commuter rail trains have mostly run on time so far this year.


The Mass. Bay Commuter Railroad Co. (MBCR) said its trains arrived on time 94.7 percent of the time in February, a record for the month since the state first contracted the company to run commuter rail in 2003.


The company said February was its third month in a row of strong performance: In January, 93 percent of trains showed up within five minutes of their scheduled arrival and 92.7 percent in December.


General Manager Hugh Kiley Jr., who took over commuter rail shortly before last winter, said MBCR has been working quietly to improve its performance.


“The ultimate scorecard is driven by how well the customers think we’re doing,” he said recently. “If we keep them comfortable and on time in both directions, and safe, to and from work or to their destination … then that’s a good success story.”


Few speakers at a series of public hearings on service cuts and fare hikes proposed by the Mass. Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) have criticized recent commuter rail service, said John Walkey, field organizer for Transportation for Massachusetts.


In fact, some commuters said trains are running better than last winter, said Walkey, whose group advocates more investment in public transportation.


“They also say that compared to last year, walking was better,” he said. “Last year was pretty extreme.”


But commuter rail still faces a major maintenance backlog, Walkey said. He noted one batch of snow earlier this otherwise mild winter still caused some delays.


“I imagine the folks at MBCR have responded because they were under, I think, a lot of fire coming at them from riders as well as the MBTA,” he said. “I think they have stepped up some stuff, but they have been greatly helped out by the weather.”


Kiley acknowledged some help from Mother Nature this year, but said MBCR has focused on improvements after last year’s rough winter.


“We sat back as a team and said what did we do right, what do we need to fix,” he said.


Kiley detailed changes in management, additional hires and new investments in the commuter rail system that he said have contributed to better performance.


The company has assigned managers to oversee each line, he said. Most managers were previously concentrated in Boston. Kiley described line each manager as “the mayor of their lines,” in charge of rooting out and addressing problems.


“I said, ‘I want somebody who will own that line, cradle to grave,’” Kiley said.


The MBTA also has funded upgrades to a truck shop in the Boston engine terminal that allows the commuter rail company to get disabled trains back in service in 21 days, down from 30, Kiley said.


“The workforce that we have over there, the employees have done an absolutely phenomenal job,” he said.


Despite seeing little precipitation so far, MBCR said it invested in about $500,000 of snow removal equipment in preparation for this winter.


The company also is taking on 80 to 100 new employees this year, some in new positions and others replacing positions eliminated through attrition, Kiley said. New hires will include conductors, engineers and track maintenance workers.


In part, Kiley said assistant conductors will be stationed at heavily-used trains to double-check tickets before passengers board.


“We’re going to be randomly doing that just to reinforce good fare collection,” he said.


Other workers will focus on particular projects, such as wrapping up the replacement of cement ties on the Middleboro line and preparing to take over a stretch of tracks from Worcester to Boston from freight carrier CSX Corp. by year’s end, Kiley said.


“A lot of it’s driven by the projects and the needs,” he said.


Last month, trains showed up within five minutes of their scheduled arrival more often than the state average along the Franklin, Greenbush, Kingston/Plymouth, Middleboro, Needham, Stoughton, Worcester, Haverhill and Lowell lines, according to MBCR.


The line with the poorest record was Rockport, with 84.2 percent of trains on time.


The clearest contrast between this winter and the last may have been January, when the state saw 62 inches of snow a year earlier, according to MBCR.


Trains on the Newburyport and Rockport lines arrived on time only a little more than half the time in January 2011, or 58.9 percent and 54.1 percent, respectively. Passengers on the Worcester line saw trains show up on time 79.3 percent of the time; 77.8 percent on the Franklin line; and 61.9 percent on the Fitchburg line.


By comparison, on-time arrivals exceeded 92 percent on the Franklin and Worcester lines in January 2012, and fell between 82.7 percent and 87.8 percent on the other three lines.


Walkey said this winter has been great for commuter rail so far, but the system still suffers from a long-term lack of investment. Ultimately, the state needs to consider its overall approach to public transportation more carefully, he said.


“We realize successive administrations have kind of kicked the maintenance can down the road,” he said. “Everything is just sort of coming due at the same time.”


(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or driley@wickedlocal.com.)