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February 19, 2011

CDOT Thinks Commuters Are Stupid

Jim Cameron - Chairman
The CT Rail Commuter Council’s “Winter Crisis – Commuter Summit” last week was a big success.  Dozens of commuters turned out to share their horror stories about trying to ride Metro-North this winter… no heat, no information, no seats and in many cases, no trains!
Metro-North and the CT Dept of Transportation made the usual excuses and apologies, which placated few… “we’re doing the best we can”… ‘it’s not our fault the trains are so old”… and the classic, “be patient, the new M8 cars are coming.” 
All of these are true.  But it was in trying to explain the many delays in the delivery and testing of the new M8 cars that things got heated.
As any reader of this column knows, we’ve been waiting since 2005 for new cars to replace our decrepit fleet.  Designed and built by Kawasaki, the new M8 cars look great.  But they’re 15 months late into service with no real explanation as to why... or when they’ll be ready for passengers.  It was time for answers.
The CT Rail Commuter Council, a creation of the legislature, has neither a budget nor much power.  But the one thing state statutes say is that we may request “and shall receive” any assistance we want from the CDOT in understanding what’s going wrong with Metro-North operations.
So, to get to the bottom of the M8 delays, we requested that CDOT bring to our meeting someone from Kawasaki and from LTK (the consultant that’s been paid $27 million to oversee the M8 testing program).  To our dismay, they refused.  No explanation, just a “no”.
We turned to Governor Malloy’s office for help, but they didn’t even return our phone calls.  So much for the first test of the Governor’s promise of open, transparent government.
Why the cover-up?  What do CDOT and the Governor know about the M8 delays that they wanted to keep the experts away from our questioning?  What are they hiding?
At our meeting on February 16th we submitted a list of 32 specific questions about the M8 program and got few replies.  But among the facts we did learn:
-        The testing program has been underway for a year.
-        The cars are showing not just “software problems” but hardware issues as well.
-        Kawasaki doesn’t get paid until the cars prove they can work.
-        The mandatory 4000-mile test run of the prototype cars has been started and restarted several times as new problems were identified.
-        Metro-North still thinks they can fix the M8 problems and get as many as 80 into service by the end of 2011, two years behind schedule.
When a commuter asked the Interim-Commissioner of the CDOT why he wasn’t speaking specifically about the identified engineering problems with the M8 he was told that “people wouldn’t understand” them.  In other words, because we’re not civil or electrical engineers (though many commuters are!), the CDOT thinks it better to just explain away this $866 million railcar as having “software problems”.
I told the Commissioner that I found his attitude insulting and condescending.  Commuters on Metro-North are not stupid and we don’t need to have things “dumbed down” to be understood.

The CT Rail Commuter Council has done what it can to find the truth about the M8 delays.  We’ve sent our questions along to the Transportation Committee of the state legislature. 
Maybe they can get some straight answers.


February 07, 2011

Metro-North's Winter Meltdown

Commuting on Metro-North has never been fun. But remember the good ol’ days when “Train time was your own time”?  This winter, train time is no time.  Metro-North’s New Haven division is in full meltdown.
Within the past week we have had two derailments, hundreds of late or cancelled trains and one frightening incident (caught on video) of an open door on a moving train.  Half of our fleet of cars is out of service, frozen solid.  Trains have broken down, without power for hours, while passengers were given no information.  And as I wrote last time, we are no closer to seeing the long-delayed new M8 cars in service.
Commuters aren’t angry, they’re livid.  I can’t even reprint some of the e-mails I get on a daily basis as Chairman of the CT Rail Commuter Council.  The language would make a sailor blush.  There have even been fist fights between some passengers.
Weekday trains have been run on a Sunday schedule.  Danbury, Waterbury and even New Canaan branch lines have seen more busing than trains.  On the mainline, trains arrived so crowded with standees that commuters couldn’t squeeze on even if they wanted to.  E-mail alerts from Metro-North would say one thing, the platform PA’s another and you’d see a third version of reality via CleverCommute.  Rumors abound but the facts are scarce.
Waterbury passengers connect to buses at Bridgeport
Finally, Metro-North wisely decided it had to cut service semi-permanently, or at least until the spring thaw, and introduced a new timetable with 10% fewer trains.  Branch line busing will be the rule from Bridgeport to Waterbury, with ‘their’ diesels diverted to the mainline. 
Some of this may help, at least until our oldest cars return to service.  But the trains will be fewer and even shorter of cars than before.  That probably means we’ll be S.R.O. in rush hour.
I am fearful of a revolt.  This isn’t Egypt, but the anger is as strong.  I’m hearing rumbling of commuter protests, like refusing to pay for their ride or staging sit-down strikes.  Some are demanding a 10% fare rebate to match the reduction in service.
To head off such protests, the Council is holding a special meeting:  “Winter Crisis – Commuter Summit” on Wednesday February 16th at 7 pm at Stamford Government Center, just a short walk from the station.  We have invited the President of Metro-North, the Commissioner of the CDOT, representatives from Kawasaki (builder of the new M8 cars) and LTK, the consultant being paid $27 million to oversee the M8 testing.  Local elected officials have also been invited, not to speak but to listen.
Most of all, we want commuters to join us… to share their stories of late trains, broken promises and outrage.  Commuters need to be heard… but they also need to hear from the railroad just why it’s done what it felt it had to.
Metro-North deserves credit for its valiant efforts to keep rail service running during blizzards and ice storms.  The railroad is not to blame for the weather or the obsolete, broken down equipment bought for its use by the state, cars that should have been replaced a decade ago.
Commuters need honest answers to their questions and concerns.  So, plan to join us February 16th in Stamford, 7 pm at Government Center.  Tell your friends and fellow commuters to join us.