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Harrowing Commute As Wheels Fall of Inbound Fitchburg Commuter Train

November 28, 2018

A disabled MBTA commuter train sits on the tracks as workers inspect and repair the broken wheel in Belmont Tuesday. (Staff Photo By Faith Ninivaggi/ Boston Herald)

BELMONT -- Keolis is taking heat from officials and advocates again after a commuter rail train derailed when a wheel fell off yesterday morning, stranding hundreds of straphangers during the morning commute.

“We’re lucky that nobody was injured or seriously injured,” said TransitMatters’ Ari Ofsevit, a frequent Fitchburg Line rider. “It’s disconcerting. That is something that should never happen.”

An express train nearing Waverley station in Belmont derailed when an axle broke at 7:45 a.m., but stayed upright, causing no injuries to the 800 passengers, according to Keolis, which has operated the MBTA’s 12 Commuter Rail lines since 2014.

Gov. Charlie Baker, long critical of the French rail operator, wants an investigation now, and a competitive bidding process when the Keolis contract is up in 2022.

“Gov. Baker expects a thorough investigation of today’s incident and the administration will continue to hold Keolis accountable and work with them to invest in the core infrastructure of the Commuter Rail system, including tracks and vehicles, to improve reliability for customers,” Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw said yesterday.

“Commuter Rail coach cars, including wheel sets, are inspected daily,” Keolis and the T said in a statement. “Additionally, the track where this occurred has been inspected to ensure the continued safe passage of trains through this area.”

Neither Keolis nor the T was able to give an average age of the Commuter Rail fleet, nor the age of the car in question. The T said it is working with Keolis on getting updated ridership and reliability numbers.

Straphanger Mark Grasso Jr., whose Fitchburg Line train passed the derailed train shortly after the wheel fell off, described “chaos,” with people running on the tracks to the nearby Waverley station in hopes of catching his train.

“There was hundreds of people walking down the tracks next to us, which is extremely dangerous as a train was going by,” Grasso said.

Keolis oversees day-to-day maintenance of the fleet. T officials said this week they worry the Commuter Rail system might cause the state agency budgetary overruns this year.

Joseph Aiello, chairman of the T’s Fiscal Management & Control Board, said Keolis had improved its management in recent years after a rocky start. Aiello said a backlog of deferred repairs long predates Keolis; the T is now in Year 6 of a 15-year, $6.6 billion investment plan.

“We need to get the average fleet age down -- we need to make it younger,” Aiello said. Many locomotives and coaches are decades old.

“There’s a huge percentage of them that should be in a junkyard somewhere,” said Pioneer Institute transportation watchdog Charles Chieppo, who predicts the state will choose a different Commuter Rail operator in 2022. “Their on-time performance has just been bad.”

State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Joseph Boncore (D-Winthrop) called the incident “symptomatic of a much larger problem.”

“We’re not making a great case for public transit as that system is breaking -- beyond being late sometimes, unreliable especially in the Commuter Rail,” Boncore said. “You don’t have to delve too far into transportation experts to say if it’s breaking, it’s a public safety concern.”

The Fitchburg line also has stops in Shirley, Ayer, Littleton, South Acton, West Concord and Concord.

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