March 17, 2014

The FRA's 'Deep Dive' into Metro-North

It was worse than we’d ever known.  Metro-North was almost an accident waiting to happen.

That summarizes the Federal Railway Administration’s “Operation Deep Dive” report issued last week, following 60 days of probing into every aspect of the railroad’s operations.  All of this comes on the heels of collisions and derailments in the past year that have taken the lives of four commuters and two railroad workers.

The 28-page report confirms that what was wrong at Metro-North was not just old equipment but a failure of management with very misplaced priorities.  “On-time performance” was what mattered most, even at the expense of safety.

Among the report’s findings…

·       Half of the personnel who dispatch and monitor the trains have less than three years’ experience, are not properly trained and are so tired they make mistakes

·       The railroad’s “safety culture” was “poor”.  Safety meetings went unattended.

·       Fatigue by train engineers, track workers and dispatchers may have affected performance.

·       The trains themselves are in good shape, but the tracks are not.

I’ve been following Metro-North for more than 20 years, so much of this is not news to me but just a substantiation of my worst fears.  Still, the report makes for interesting reading because it cites many examples as proof-points for these findings:

Metro-North has known for a decade that they were facing a “retirement cliff” with 20% of its employees, those with the most experience, reaching their 30th anniversary of employment to retire on fat pensions.  But the railroad was clearly inadequate in hiring and training their replacements.

Fatigue becomes a factor because soon-to-retire veterans grab all the overtime they can in their final year to increase their income and their railroad pensions.  They are among the oldest employees and least resilient.

Metro-North’s management wasn’t even enforcing its own rules.  The report says employees were “confused” about cell phone use on the job.  Any teenager studying for his driver’s license knows not to use a cell phone while driving, but track workers at Metro-North got away with it.

Additional funding for staff and infrastructure are important and must be found. But turning around a culture of lax enforcement and lip-service to safety is going to take more than money.

Only a month on the job, espousing “safety is our top priority” at every turn, the new President of Metro-North, Joseph Giulietti, recently saw the first fatal accident on his watch:  a track worker, 8 years on the job, was struck by a train just outside the Park Avenue tunnel.  Why?

There are no quick fixes to this mess.  It took years of invisible neglect for Metro-North to slide into this abyss, and it will take years to rebuild the railroad and regain riders’ trust.

March 01, 2014

Metro-North Tarnishes the Gold Coast

Even if you never ride Metro-North, the railroad’s current problems are hitting your pocketbook.  This “winter of discontent” shows signs of becoming a chronic problem, bleeding our state’s resources, human and monetary.  Here’s why.
At the “Commuter Speakout” in mid-February in Southport, almost 200 angry riders turned out to confront CDOT and Metro-North officials, sharing their horror stories of longer rides, unheated railcars and stranded trains.  But they did more than complain… they threatened to move away.
Several real estate agents told the crowd they had lost closings when folks moving up from NYC got wind of the Metro-North problems.  Others already living in Connecticut said they were moving closer to their Manhattan jobs, to towns with dependable, cheaper mass transit. 
If people move out of CT, they take with them their taxes, both local (property) and state (sales and income).  Reduced demand for real estate lowers property values.  Your town’s grand list shrinks and taxes must rise to fill the gap, creating a vicious cycle.  The “gold coast” is losing its luster.
But surely this will all be fixed, right?  By the spring house hunters will be back, fueling the recovery.  Maybe not, because Metro-North’s new President isn’t making promises for a speedy turnaround.
Consider this:  many people chose where to live based on travel-time to work.  A one-hour commuting time from mid-town Manhattan used to include portions of Connecticut all the way from Greenwich, through Stamford, Darien and Norwalk.  Not anymore.
Trains are running slower since last spring’s derailment… much slower.  In the 1950’s the New Haven Railroad ran express from Stamford to GCT in 47 minutes. By 2000 Metro-North had increased speeds so the run could be done in 46 minutes, making Stamford a desirable bedroom community.  Today, in the cause of safety, Stamford to GCT takes 63 minutes.
Metro-North’s new President Joseph Giulietti told lawmakers in Hartford that running speeds will not increase in the coming years, and possibly never.  The Federal Railroad Administration has placed so many speed limits on the New Haven line, what used to be a one hour 47 min run from New Haven to GCT now takes two hours and four minutes, 17 minutes longer.  With a typical five working day roundtrip schedule, that’s almost three hours a week in extra commuting time on top of the 17+ hours already spent on the train!
Nobody wants to compromise safety for speed, but neither do commuters want to pay the highest fares in the country for unreliable, slower service.
Who’s to blame?  Governor Rowland who ignored investing in rail when there was still time to fix it, and Governors Rell and Malloy who treat the Special Transportation Fund like a petty cash drawer to pay for everything but rail.  Most of all, our legislature bears the blame for ignoring transportation funding for decades.

Doesn’t it seem hypocritical for Governor Malloy and our State Legislature to be so “angry”, confused and “appalled” with the state of Metro-North today when it was their spending, or lack thereof, that got us in this mess?


Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...