Legislators call for Metro-North overhaul

Anyone following Twitter during Monday morning’s snowstorm could feel that frustration among Metro-North commuters was palpable. There were reports of delays, trains without power, commuters without information on when they might reach their destinations. It has become a familiar story.

Coincidentally, also on Monday, Feb. 3, the Connecticut Department of Transportation was set to undertake a $10-million project to upgrade the power supply for the railroad’s New Haven line. In announcing the plan on Sunday, Gov. Dannel Malloy said the project is intended to prevent the type of catastrophic power failure that occurred this past fall in Mount Vernon, N.Y., when a Con Ed feeder line failed, seriously disrupting service.

The governor also announced plans to meet face to face with the incoming president of Metro-North, Joe Giulietti, and Thomas F. Prendergast, chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Metro-North’s parent agency, on Feb. 13 to discuss his concerns about the operation of the New Haven line.

“The New Haven line is the busiest single rail line in the country and each day takes more than 60,000 travelers off of our already congested highways,” Mr. Malloy said. “In anticipation of adding even more service on this state-owned rail corridor, we want to ensure riders have as safe and reliable a commute as possible and prevent the major system interruptions that we experienced in September.”

Mr. Malloy is not the only state official seeking answers from railroad representatives. Democratic and Republican legislators met Monday morning in Hartford to announce they are seeking greater oversight and accountability from Metro-North.

Among them was state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26), who pointed out the damage a failing rail system can inflict on the economy.

“Any disruption has an immediate ripple effect on business and jobs. Unfortunately, Metro-North has lost credibility in its ability to operate a safe and dependable railroad,” Ms. Boucher said in a letter to federal authorities and the Connecticut U.S. legislative delegation. The senator is ranking member of the transportation committee.

The letter, also sent by state Sen. Andrew Maynard, a Democrat of Stonington, and state Reps. Tony Guerrera, Democrat of Rocky Hill, and Republican David Scribner of Brookfield, asks Mr. Prendergast and Mr. Giulietti to appear before the transportation committee, proposes measurable goals for Metro-North to improve its credibility, and asks for federal and state assistance in both aiding Metro-North in meeting these goals and securing necessary funding to support critical infrastructure improvements.

Ms. Boucher also pointed to a list of calamities that have plagued the rail line since 2011, including these:

• A train was stranded and passengers were trapped for nearly an hour near Westport in triple-digit temperatures in July 2011.

• A special unit of inspectors who rode the trains undercover to monitor crews was disbanded in 2012 when an audit discovered they were falsifying work records.

• A derailment in Bridgeport in May 2013 sent 76 people to the hospital and caused $185 million in damage.

• A rail engineer was killed in West Haven in May 2013 in an accident attributed to trainee error.

• An electrical outage in September 2013 resulted in a major service disruption.

• A derailment on Dec. 1 killed four passengers and seriously injured scores of others.

• A woman was killed in Westport on the tracks Jan. 13 of this year and the MTA never reported the incident to local police.

• Trains were stuck on tracks Jan 23 for two hours after a systemwide failure due to human error.

• A Metro-North employee was arrested for alleged sexual assault of a sleeping passenger on a train on Jan. 28.

“The problems cannot wait to be resolved,” Ms. Boucher said. “This situation must be addressed now to restore trust in Metro-North’s ability to run its operations. Connecticut’s hands are tied, however, as it has no leverage due to a 60-year contract that is not meeting the needs of its customers or a modern rail system. We believe that federal intervention may be required to address this dire situation,” she added.

Wilton state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) was also at the Hartford gathering, adding her voice to the call for urgent measures to address the rail system failures.

While she said Mr. Malloy’s announcement of funding for the power supply upgrade was “an acknowledgment that the administration has not been doing enough to hold Metro-North accountable,” she said that it was a “welcome investment that should significantly improve the railroad’s reliability. But commuters still need urgent relief from the constant problems in everyday service.”

“For commuters to see any real change, Connecticut must become a senior partner in the relationship with the operator that it pays $71 million annually to provide 39 million passenger rides a year,” she said. “The arrival of new leadership may give Connecticut an opportunity to adopt a more constructive agreement. If federal intervention is necessary to make this happen, so be it. Commuters have had enough, and they can’t wait any longer for real improvement.”

U.S. Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th) said he was pleased with Mr. Malloy’s announcement that the state would fund an energy upgrade, saying it would help improve reliability and safety.

“This is a good start, but the fact is that after years of delays, derailments, outages, and, perhaps most frustratingly, a severe and consistent lack of communication on the part of Metro-North, there is still a lot we must do to make Metro-North safer, more reliable, and more accountable,” he said in a statement issued to the press. “I look forward to seeing this upgrade implemented and will continue working with the governor and Metro-North to identify further fixes to ensure Metro-North is working for the people.”