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January 21, 2008

"A Report Card for Metro-North"

True to its legislative mandate, the CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council has just issued its annual report to Governor Rell, the legislature and MTA. The full 97 page report is available on our website, but here are the highlights.

The Council gives the railroad high marks for running an on-time system despite our aging and decrepit fleet. In 2007, 97.1% of all trains ran “on-time” (defined as arriving at their destination within five minutes and 59 seconds), a new record.

When things have gone wrong, such as several wires-down episodes, the railroad got things up and running again with admirable speed.

The problem is, such an on-time record makes commuters expect such service, and when things go wrong, they need to understand why. Here is the railroad’s greatest shortcoming.

Communication with passengers on the platforms, on the trains and through the media is spotty at best. While automated PA announcements have improved, passengers stuck on delayed trains can’t rely on train crews for updated information.

In several cases last year, trains were delayed for several hours. Passengers seeking information from on-board crew members not only didn’t receive it, they found conductors hiding from customers in their control-cabs. This is just wrong, and while the railroad says it agrees with the Council, these problems persist.

Metro-North’s new e-mail alert system and website seem the most reliable sources for updates, but in several incidents CDOT confused the situation by sending out conflicting e-mails. By “trying to help” they just messed up communications.

In its work with the railroad, the Council has encountered similar problems. Senior management of Metro-North has, on at least two occasions, responded to the Council’s efforts to improve communications with an attitude of arrogance and denial. We should all be on the same side, not adversaries.

On a positive note, the Council’s efforts did bring about positive change for commuters… halting the plan to dump morning rush-hour riders on unheated, unsheltered platforms all winter for the sake of needed catenary work… replacing an ill-conceived $1 per ticket fare surcharge with a 1% fare hike for each of seven years starting in 2010… persuading MTA not to ban alcohol sales at stations and on bar-cars… convincing the railroad to add more service on the growing Waterbury line… and getting Metro-North to add a special e-mail alert system for branch riders.

Best of all, design and construction moves forward on the new M8 cars, still due to start arriving in August of 2009. These will truly be world-class rail cars, delighting passengers and adding badly needed seats.

But one huge unresolved problem is that of station parking. With new seating capacity coming down the track, the Council remains concerned that nothing is being done to add more parking at stations to encourage ridership.

Sure, a new station is planned in Fairfield with 1,500 parking spaces, but there are already 3,400 commuters on the waiting list for annual permits there. A new garage is planned in Stamford to replace the old one which must be demolished, but the private / public partnership building it remains a mystery and despite numerous requests, the Council can get no information about the design or local traffic flow. Waiting lists for parking permits at most stations run three to four years.

Finally, it’s been 18 months since the Commuter Council launched its “Fix My Station” campaign documenting dozens of stations with safety issues, yet the $6 million allocated by the state to repair these hazards remains unspent. Why?

Commuters in Connecticut deserve better, and the Commuter Council will keep fighting to make sure they get it.

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