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February 15, 2015

Is Metro-North Irreplacable?

What is Connecticut’s relationship with Metro-North?  Client – vendor?  Shared partnership?  Stockholm syndrome?  Or is the railroad a “fanged sloth” hanging around our neck?
All of those analogies has been made to the state’s 30+ year relationship with Metro-North, part of NY’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  But given their dismal safety record and deteriorating service in recent years, many have asked “is it time to fire Metro-North and find someone else to run our trains?”
I posed that very question almost four years ago and people were shocked, not knowing that such a thing was even possible.  Now there are even laws being considered in Hartford to rid us of the railroad.
But even though Metro-North works for us, CDOT’s Commissioner Jim Redeker says they should not… in fact, cannot… be replaced.
Redeker recently testified that Metro-North is uniquely qualified and staffed to run a commuter rail operation of its size and that there are no other potential competitors he’d consider as operator, let alone try to build our own agency from scratch.  On this point he’s probably right.
Where he’s wrong is in arguing that replacing Metro-North would mean we wouldn’t be allowed to run “our trains” into “their station”, Grand Central. 
There are plenty of railroads with operating rights on others’ tracks.  NJ Transit has no trouble getting into Penn Station. Virginia Railway Express runs into downtown DC.   Does Commissioner Redeker really think that our Congressional delegation couldn’t force the MTA to give us access to GCT?  It wouldn’t be an easy fight, but this is certainly no deal-breaker to replacing Metro-North.
Alternative #3 is to renegotiate our contract with the railroad. This opportunity only presents itself every five years, and 2015 is one of those windows.   Maybe we should get them to commit to service standards, as their current contract has no metrics to measure their performance.  But again, Commissioner Redeker seems reticent to fight for our state or its commuters.
He reminded lawmakers that the last time Connecticut arbitrated the contract we were out-smarted and ending up with a worse deal than we’d had before, going from 60% cost-sharing to 65%.  The MTA’s army of lawyers took us to the cleaners, costing us millions more in payments to Metro-North each year.  Apparently Commissioner thinks we’re not smart enough to negotiate a better deal, so why even try.
So, just to recap… our Commissioner of Transportation says we have no real options, that we have to work with Metro-North, but we’re probably not savvy enough to get any better deal than we have now.  So let’s just wave the white flag before the battle begins and keep paying $70+ million a year for lousy train service.
Now there is inspired leadership!  Declare defeat and just walk away.  Let the “fanged sloth” continue to hang around our necks.  We really have no choice. Suck it up because Metro-North, our vendor, is running the show.


NYCKate132 said...

Their on-time stats were so bad they did find a way to address that - they changed the meaning of "on time" about a year ago. Now a train is considered late if it's only 6 minutes or more late. Is that rigging the stats or what?

IAM Reform said...

What would be interesting to know is where that $70 million goes? How much of it goes to lessening the traffic on CT roads and interstates, thereby reducing maintenance and related costs there. How much goes to CT residents in terms of wages, salaries, etc, thereby generating income through taxes and spending for our state treasury. Most importantly, and to the contrary, how much of that $70 million is lost in a bloated executive level buracracy? I my opinion the question really is; "what is the return on our investment of $70 million and is that return adequate to justify that expense"


NYCKate132: That margin of error of 5:59 has been around for 20+ years and, at least in the US, is the industry standard BION!

Neal Edelson said...

I truly commend your efforts toward trying to effect positive change, however, unfortunately I have come to the depressing conclusion, that this effort is truly hopeless. To continue to try only opens the door to great frustration on a daily ( actually twice daily) basis.
As inept ( and they are SO inept)as Metro North is, the CT DOT is equally inept. I think you have really highlighted a primary issue and that is Commissioner Redeker. He is completely ineffective at managing the trains and even more ineffective in his efforts at managing the roads.
I have been to and participated in numerous meetings and not once came away thinking anything could change. In order for that to happen, the people in positions to effect change need to care enough to make change and not make excuses. The entire culture of Metro North and the CT DOT needs to change. Riders truly need to be view as customers and not cattle. The low hanging fruit would be implementation of Wifi for it's CUSTOMERS. This doesn't require revamping an archaic infrastructure and should be a relatively simple gesture of good faith and yet, no dice !
Renegotiating the contract seems like a no brainer, but assuming that happens, what recourse when performance remains below par ?
I'm really not a defeatist, but I'm really afraid that this is so broken, that any fix is so far down the road, that we may see an Elon Musk vacuum transport before we see a significant change to our commutes !!

punkjazz said...

The stats are misleading at best. Lets say a train is running 7 minutes late half way through its route. What frequently is done is to have that train skip stops to make up some time, and not be reported late. They don't count those passengers at the skipped stations who have to wait for the next train.


PunkJazz: You're right: 'late' trains mid-journey can often make up time and arrive "on time" at GCT. But they don't do that by skipping stations, just by a padded timetable. Stations are only skipped during serious service disruptions.