OP-ED | Is This Any Way to Run a Railroad?
The recent disruption of Metro-North service raised several critical issues. An obvious one is the cost and inconvenience of disruptions for commuters. Another is their impact on rush-hour traffic congestion, and on road and rail transportation throughout the Northeast Corridor, which connects New England to the rest of the country.
There’s also an impact on the state budget. An analysis released last week by the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) found that the outage lost Connecticut $2.5 million in net revenue and $62 million in GDP. While these are estimates, the numbers are consequential enough to cause legitimate concern, especially in a state with the only GDP that shrank in 2012.
None of these issues is new, but the recent outage has put them in the spotlight. Because of the New Haven Line’s importance to Connecticut’s economy and to the state’s ability to function on a daily basis, it’s urgent to take Metro-North service disruptions very seriously.
Although commuters are receiving credit this time, there’s no regular policy for compensating them for tickets they can’t use. Besides the money they lose on tickets, they also must pay for parking and gasoline if they drive to work.
I introduced a bill during the 2013 legislative session that would have required the validity of monthly and weekly tickets to be extended after outages lasting 48 hours or more. Despite strong support from the CT Rail Commuter Council, SWRPA, and many commuters, the bill didn’t pass because both Metro-North and the CT DOT objected to any type of reimbursement. Metro-North’s one-time credit issuance, however, shows that workable solutions are possible. If no policy change happens, I will raise the issue again during the 2014 session.
The ultimate objective should be minimizing or eliminating lengthy disruptions altogether. It’s a complex task that requires not only resetting investment priorities, but also a review of the way the railroad is managed.
A little background helps explain why. The state owns the tracks in Connecticut. Metro-North operates the commuter service under a decades-old, complicated contract with the state DOT. The state pays 65 percent of operating expenses and Metro-North pays 35 percent. This includes movable equipment like railcars. The state alone is responsible for the infrastructure. This has, in practice, meant repairs and upgrades, as well as maintenance. The terms of the DOT’s authority over any Metro-North actions are limited and obscure. What does all this mean for improving the New Haven Line?
This last outage has been ascribed to ConEd’s failure to provide a back-up power source while it was repairing one of two feeder lines that supply electricity to Metro-North. The repair work was scheduled. Metro-North knew about it and agreed with ConEd that relying exclusively on one power line posed no significant risk. Clearly better assessment and planning could have prevented the outage, and the DOT should require that of Metro-North. The contract should clearly give the DOT this leverage.
A fundamental issue is the serious need for investment to make service on the New Haven Line not only more frequent, faster, and more reliable, but also safer. Incidents threatening safety are becoming more common, among them the tragic derailment in Bridgeport, the locked, overheated railcar in Westport, and the train traveling with open doors on the New Canaan branch in the dead of winter.
The New Haven Line provides 39 million passenger rides annually and is the key mass transit artery through Connecticut’s most economically active area. Yet the administration has put investing in speculative new projects like the New Britain busway first. Redefining investment priorities would help focus attention on the safety of people riding the rails already. So would halting raids of the state’s Special Transportation Fund, which should be used only for transportation. So would review of the Metro-North contract to find a more equitable way to allocate responsibility for maintenance and repair costs.
Introducing a commuter compensation policy, reviewing the Metro-North contract, and resetting the state’s investment priorities are all critical for the New Haven Line. This railroad is too important to Connecticut not to run very, very well.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle represents Wilton, Norwalk, and Westport. She is Ranking Member of the General Assembly’s Commerce Committee and of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation.
CORRECTION: We erroneously listed the author as a “former” state representative in our Friday Night Fix email blast. Rep. Lavielle is a current state representative. Apologies!