July 26, 2008

"How To Complain About The Trains"

All that is necessary for the success of evil is that good men do nothing.

Now, this is no way to imply that the folks who run Metro-North are in any way evil. For the most party, I think they do an admirable job running our trains, given the decrepit equipment allocated them by the state. But when things do go wrong, if human error is at fault, it’s important that you complain. Otherwise, bad service is perpetuated.

Each week I get dozens of such complaints by phone and e-mail. Folks must think I’m the Michael Clayton of the commuting world… “the fixer”. Far from it, though I usually know where to send the aggrieved party for real help.

Here are six simple rules to follow to get your complaint heard:

RULE #1: Be sure you have all the facts. To fix a problem you need the date, time, location and name of employees involved (or a good description if they refuse to show you their badge). Gather the names and contact info from other eye-witnesses to corroborate your story.

RULE #2: Be sure to complain to the right party. If it’s a problem involving station parking, you probably have to talk to Town Hall. Same with the stations. But if it’s something that happened on the trains, take it to Metro-North.

RULE #3: Use the www.mta.info website complaint form to officially file your complaint. (Look under FAQ / Contact Us, then E-Mail). Fill out the template and print or make a copy for yourself.

RULE #4: Be patient. You will get a response. The folks in Customer Service have a truly thankless job, but they do it well. Your complaint can bring about real change including disciplinary hearings, changes in schedules and even refunds.

RULE #5: Be ready to follow-through. If a hearing is scheduled and you can’t or won’t appear, you’ve wasted everyone’s time. If the written response you get from Customer Service seems unresponsive or patronizing, fire back!

RULE #6: If all else fails, turn to the Commuter Council. Our job is to be your advocate. By raising an issue at our meetings, the potential media coverage alone often prompts the agencies to action.

Mind you, some complaints we get seem misplaced.

Like the rider last week who “complained” to me about new Naugahyde seats recently installed in an old rail-car. She thought this was a cosmetic tweak to lousy service and a warning sign that the new M8 cars would be delayed. Both her fears proved wrong.

Or my favorite complaint ever was from a woman who screamed at me on the phone that the railroad wouldn’t reimburse her. Seems that she had caught the last, late-night train from 125th Street to New Rochelle, but had mistakenly boarded the express that ran non-stop to Stamford… a unfortunately common occurrence which should be solved by better signage and PA announcements. (The local and express are only minutes apart).

So I assumed that, on arriving at Stamford, she had caught a cab back to New Rochelle and was asking the railroad to reimburse her for cab fare… a plausible and perhaps reasonable request given that she’d missed the last southbound local.

No, she said, when she got to Stamford she decided she was so far from home (in fact, just 16 miles) that she walked across the street and checked into a hotel for the night and wanted the railroad to pay for her $200 hotel room.

See what I mean when I say working in Customer Service is a thankless job?


Last week’s column ( “Why We Love To Hate I-95” ) apparently struck a nerve, generating a lot of comments, some of which I thought I’d share...