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May 28, 2007

Wires Down !

Metro-North commuters take a lot for granted. Sure, the trains are crowded and you can’t always get a seat. Yes, the fares are the highest on the continent. We all know the bathrooms stink and the cars are being patched with gaffers tape. But at least they run on time… usually.

Wednesday April 25th was anything but “usual”. As the first train of the morning, the 4:12 from New Haven rolled through Cos Cob, its aging pantograph snagged the overhead power wire. A following train, maneuvering around the stranded train, also caught the caternary, bringing down further power lines. It was the worst of all complications at the worst of all times… the beginning of the morning rush. “Wires down” went out the call, at least to some.

While many parts of the New Haven line have caternary dating from the administration of Woodrow Wilson, this section of power lines had recently been replaced. The fault, it seems, was with the 35-year-old car. Nevertheless, the morning rush was going to be a nightmare.

The commuter cognoscenti immediately went to Plan B: rather than driving to their usual station, they made tracks for White Plains to catch the Harlem Line trains. Initial e-mail alerts from Metro-North were not optimistic, promising 2+ hour delays. Some commuters did as I did… stayed home and telecommuted.

But for folks already on the train or at the station, the options were few and the information scant and often contradictory.

At Stamford, the PA said that trains were running from Rye, a few miles down the line. Hoards of New York-bound commuters dashed for cabs only to be gouged $60 for the nine-mile trip. But once they got to Rye, no trains! Five deep, they lined the platform, looking up the line for telltale signs of action. “The train to NY will leave from the New Haven-bound side,” bellowed the PA. And like lemmings, hundreds crossed over only to see “their train” fly through on their original train without stopping. Back over to the original track, a train finally showed up at 8:20 am and they squeezed in like sardines.

At some stations commuters waited in their parked cars listening to radio reports which often contradicted what the automated PA was advising. “Buses are coming,” some were promised, though no buses arrived.

A ten-car train on Metro-North can hold 1,000 passengers. A bus can carry 50. With 80 trains delayed, you can do the math. And that’s assuming buses are even available, it being morning rush hour, or that they can make their way through now-jammed highways to get to stations. Substitute buses would never work.

Ironically, some of the best information that morning went straight to commuters’’ Blackberries from the MTA by way of their new e-mail alerts. If you’re not signed up for this free service, you should be!

At the Commuter Council’s next meeting, Wed. May 16th, we will conduct a detailed post-mortem on what went so terribly wrong that April morning. We’ll cast special attention on the communications problems, a perennial issue with Metro-North. We invite your participation, in person or by e-mail. Check our website for more details:
Metro-North riders can tolerate a lot, if they’re kept informed so they can make decisions. Sadly, that didn’t happen. The next time the call goes out “wires down”… and there will be a next time… will things be any better?
JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 16 years. He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed are only his own and not necessarily those of these organizations. You can reach him at or

1 comment:

AudioGuy said...

Overhead lines are referred to in the US as 'Messenger Wires'. They are referred to as 'Catenary'... not 'Cate(r)nary' -in Canada and the UK.

This is not a jab, I enjoy your blog immensely. It is merely a correction.

Happy Travels!