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July 25, 2011

Metro-North's July Meltdown

Friday July 22nd was the hottest day I can ever remember.  The pavement in Manhattan was 147 degrees and I could tell that my commute home was going to be awful.  Luckily, I wasn’t on the 1:34 to New Haven.
That train on time with three of its cars lacking good air conditioning, so the remaining cars were standing room only.  Just past the Westport station, an aging pantograph snared the overhead catenary (power) line, sagging in the heat, and the train lost power.  No electricity meant no AC, no radio and no PA system.
Eyewitnesses on the train tell me people started panicking as the temperature rose.  They asked a conductor to open a window or door, but he refused. Finally, two passengers opened emergency evacuation windows, pried open the doors, jumped out and walked down onto the tracks.
Realizing that they faced an emergency and with no aid or communications from the conductors, people pulled out their phones and dialed 911.  The railroad wasn’t going to rescue them, so maybe the police could.  People were crying, fainting, throwing up.  At least three pregnant women were in distress.
Stranded passengers at Greens Farms seek shade after leaving stalled train.
  Photo courtesy of WestportNow.com
When their 911 screens “lit up”, Westport Police called Metro-North headquarters asking the location of the train. At first they were told the train was empty, which delayed an EMS response.  After almost an hour in these unbearable circumstances, the train limped into the Greens Farms station where rescue workers from Fairfield and Westport tended to the sick and passed out water.  On the platform, the digital displays mocked the crisis by reading “Good Service”.
About the same time, the 12:07 pm from GCT became disabled between Stratford and Bridgeport.  The 3:27 pm from New Haven suffered the same fate nearby, also because of the pantographs snagging the drooping power lines.
At 4:45 pm I arrived at GCT, having heard of “wires down” delays from Clever Commute.  Luckily, I could grab a diesel train, the 5:10 to Danbury, which had minimal air conditioning but might bypass the delays beyond Norwalk where it would hang a left and go up the branch.
In fact, there were four Commuter Council members leaving GCT at about that hour, each on a different train.  By e-mail, we compared notes on our delays and the total lack of communications about the problems ahead.  On none of our trains was there any announcement.  I asked my conductor what he knew, hearing the Metro-North radio crackling on his hip. “They haven’t told us anything,” he said.
A commuter using Clever Commute first reported the wires problem at 3:23 pm.  It wasn’t until 4:15 pm that Metro-North’s e-mail alert system finally posted a vague message of “heat related instances” and “35 - 45 minute delays” from Stamford to New Haven. “Instances”?
Rush hour was screwed.  Dozens of trains pouring out of GCT would be delayed.  And because New Haven to NYC trains had been totally suspended, needed equipment could not arrive at GCT to take folks home.  Friday evenings are always a problem on Metro-North.  This would be one for the history books.
It’s not Metro-North’s fault that our catenary is so fragile… snapping in the bitter cold of winter and sagging in the summer’s heat.  And it’s not Metro-North’s fault that the pantographs on our 40-year-old trains can’t be adequately maintained.
Anybody who has ridden Metro-North over the years knows that “stuff” happens.
But Metro-North is responsible for its horrendous, potentially life-threatening lack of communications.  On the trains, at the stations and via e-mail, their silence and ambiguity about Friday’s crisis are just the latest in a litany of disregard for the commuter, their customer.
The Commuter Council has documented many similar incidents in the past.  Each time the railroad said “We’ll try harder”.  They have obviously failed.
Personally, I think Governor Malloy or the legislature needs to call an emergency hearing, calling Metro-North to task.  Nobody at that railroad ever seems to take the blame or responsibility.
This time, the hottest day in recent memory, thousands sweated and were delayed, but nobody was hurt.  Next time, we may not be so lucky.

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