A View from Glen Hill: A proposal to improve rail service

A letter to the editor appeared last month that very understandably criticized Metro-North service but then added, “Where are our state representatives and governor in this morass? All they do is pay lip service to giving us a better railroad, but they actually do nothing.”

While I sympathize with the letter writer’s complaints about Metro-North, I disagree with laying blame on state officials. In fact, our own state officials, Sen. Toni Boucher and Rep. Gail Lavielle, have been laudably diligent, persistent, and creative in keeping after Metro-North to improve service. Sadly, the federal report on the recent rash of serious accidents on Metro-North contains the key finding that Metro-North values performance over safety and then goes on to explain in detail its reasons for arriving at that very troubling conclusion.

I remember thinking of moving to Connecticut well before we actually did but being discouraged from doing so by the tales told by my law partners who took the train in from various Connecticut stations, suffering the slings and arrows of Metro-North travel; from antiquated cars to schedules routinely shot to hell, commuting on Metro-North was not for the fainthearted.

But then something happened so that by 1987 when we moved here, commuting on Metro-North had become as agreeable as any kind of commuting can be, even for battle-hardened longtime commuting veterans, and for me it was hard to understand what everyone had been complaining about. The service was prompt and reliable, and while the trip between Wilton and Grand Central was certainly not short, it was comfortable and reasonably fast.

I don’t commute into New York City routinely anymore. I was distressed to read this letter writer’s assertions about the performance of my old standby, the 6:51 a.m. out of Wilton, now getting into Grand Central, he states, at 8:20 or even 8:30. I don’t have the information to speak to that, but I do know that in recent months, bus service on the branch line has become a more routine occurrence. Yet on the main line, trains seem to run pretty well “on or close” to schedule on my regular commute to New Haven, and the new train cars are very comfortable, the conductors and ticket agents generally courteous and helpful. That is not to say that I don’t have occasional beefs with Metro-North service, which explains my reference to this letter writer’s criticisms as understandable.

Where we part company is in laying blame on our elected officials. There are limits to what Connecticut state officials have within their power to do respecting the MTA, with the MTA’s board of directors appointed half by New York state and half by New York City. We are a junior player in this game with no levers of control in the contractual relationship. We could step up to a bigger role, I suppose, using the “carrot” approach by offering to spend more state money on Metro-North (with no sure correlation, however, between increased spending and improved service), but these are not times when elected officials are in a position to throw such new financial commitments around lightly. If Connecticut tries the “stick” approach instead and threatens to withhold funds from the MTA/Metro-North, we can be sure of only one thing: Service will continue to deteriorate in Connecticut and might take a dramatic tumble from where it is even now, on Metro-North’s claim that “we can’t spend for service what we don’t get in funding”; alternatively, the financial difference will be thrust upon Connecticut commuters in higher ticket prices.

My modest suggestion is the following; it doesn’t call for more expenditures by our state in support of Metro-North operations and is something the MTA as a whole should be willing to put in place, especially in light of this very troubling federal report.

We know that financial incentives work to motivate the behavior of both top executives and middle managers in industry and finance — and think how many of us in all sorts of private endeavors live with such incentives as part of our lives.

So for salaried (i.e., non-union) Metro-North employees, tie some reasonably significant portion of their annual compensation to these performance measures: (1) safety/accident record; (2) on-time performance results; (3) number of scheduled trains operated; and other objective performance measures that those who know better than I the details of rail operation can craft to measure essential elements of excellent and safe operation.

We all know that there is nothing like tying compensation to performance to get the job done right!

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.