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December 13, 2007

CDOT's "Big Chill" To Commuters

Winter’s here… the time commuters dread the most. Will the trains run? Will they have heat? What if it snows? And now, a new worry… which platform will they depart on?

To continue with the needed caternary (overhead power-wire) replacement program (now ten years late and $100 million over budget), CDOT recently told commuters they’d have to board their morning rush hour trains from the opposite, or New Haven-bound, platform. Worse yet, this disruption to their morning routines would continue for four months!

When the CDOT announcement was posted at stations November 28th, I called the agency in my capacity as Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council and asked, basically, “what are you thinking?!?” This was a major alteration with no notification to the Commuter Council and only days of notice to passengers.

I reminded the senior rail officials at CDOT that there is no shelter, no canopies or heat on those platforms. There are no amenities or vendors of coffee and newspapers, hard-working folks who could go bankrupt without business for four months. There are no ticket machines on the New Haven-bound platform meaning late-arriving passengers would be whacked $5 for on-board ticket purchases.

My CDOT contacts said “sorry, work must go on and this is the only way.” I said, “We’ll see”. And we did.

Members of the Commuter Council reached out to local elected officials warning them to expect some irate calls from constituents come Monday, December 4th when the scheme was to go into effect. Using my professional PR skills, I got in touch with the media and told them what was afoot. Both of these efforts reached the Governor’s office, and in less than one day the plan was killed.

(Read Governor Rell’s press release on this issue and you’ll see an almost verbatim transcript of the Commuter Council’s media release. That kind of plagiarism I love!)

The Governor told CDOT to find an alternative plan to keep caternary work going and keep commuters warm. And CDOT did, quickly… announcing that bridge plates would be erected from Milford to Stamford, perhaps delaying trains by a few minutes. Everybody wins… especially commuters.

Why did CDOT attempt the “Big Chill” in the first place? Are these bureaucrats evil or stupid? In fact, they are neither. But they are focused on the business of running the railroad, sometimes forgetting the passengers those trains carry. They are also under-staffed, over-worked and dangerously distracted, waiting for the Governor’s Commission on the Reform of CDOT to issue its report and tell them if they still have a job.

I’d also suggest that many CDOT staffers are probably demoralized by the constant second-guessing they receive from Governor Rell, well intentioned as it may be. None of which is to excuse this amazingly crazy, ill-conceived plan to send commuters into the cold all winter for the expedience of contractors working on the wires.

So this winter when you’re waiting “dark and early” for your morning train, huddled in a heated waiting room with a cuppa Joe warming your hands, think of what might have been if the bureaucrats had got their way. And then you’ll understand why the Rail Commuter Council exists.