August 22, 2011

Is It Time To "Fire" Metro-North?

Is it time to find another operating agency for our commuter trains?  

Consider the last year:  winter service reductions, summer strandings in sweltering heat, the M8 cars almost two years late in delivery, abusive and incompetent conductors, arrogant and unresponsive management.

You may not realize that Metro-North is hired by the state of Connecticut to operate our trains.  They work for us.  Yet they never seem to be held accountable for their mistakes.

Last week there was a very loud “listening session” for Metro-North President Howard Permut to hear from passengers stranded on July 22nd in potentially life-threatening conditions on the hottest day of the year.  Mr Permut said he came to listen and learn.  Yet, he squirmed in his seat, his body language screaming discomfort, and hardly took a single note as dozens of good ideas were presented.

He apologized for what happened. But in a 20-page “Open Letter to Commuters” he acknowledged no fault, assessing the blame for what happened on old cars and power-lines.
How does Metro-North keep this job, except for negligence in oversight by the CDOT?  

The contract between CDOT and Metro-North self-renews every five years.  Neither side has ever renegotiated the terms.  There are neither penalties for bad service nor incentives for good.  There is no accountability.

The income Metro-North makes from running New Haven line trains is more than they make from the Hudson and Harlem lines combined.  We in Connecticut are Metro-North’s main source of revenue.  Yet, they hold all the power and tell us what to do.

The M8 project was of their design, not Connecticut’s.  The new car contracts had set-asides for minority and women-owned businesses in NY, not CT.  Through their parent agency, the MTA, Metro-North determines capital expenditures with no “yea” or “nay” votes from Connecticut, and then bills us for our share.

Yes, Metro-North has an admirable on-time record.  And certainly many of the issues they struggle with regarding aging equipment, insufficient repair facilities and century-old power lines, are not their fault.

But July’s stranding of hundreds of passengers near Greens Farms on the hottest day of the year shows an area easily improved upon:  staff training.

Why did conductors on that train not communicate with passengers, leaving them so desperate they called 911 to be rescued?  Why did it take passengers, not conductors, to open windows and doors, to cope with the 100+ degree heat?  Why did a conductor take off his uniform so as to not to be bothered by anxious passengers?  And when the train did start moving, why did conductors curse at each other over the PA system for all to hear?

What consequences did those conductors face?  Were they disciplined?  Re-trained?  Demoted?  Fired?  Nobody knows, or at least the railroad won’t tell us.

Maybe it’s time to tell Metro-North it can be replaced.  Other commuter rail lines have changed operating agencies… the MBTA, Virginia Railway Express… and passengers found better service at lower cost.

Yes, Connecticut can “fire” Metro-North and find someone else to run our trains.  Just because Metro-North has had a monopoly on our commuter lines since 1983 doesn’t mean they’re the only game in town.

But first our Governor and the legislature should ask the CDOT what kind of oversight they conduct on Metro-North.  Why not an annual report card?  The CT Rail Commuter Council issues an annual report.  I wonder if anyone in Hartford reads it.  If they did, they’d know these problems are not new.


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