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New rail group pushes to get Metro-North fixed

Published 10:32 am, Monday, January 27, 2014
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With a new website and social media campaign, Jim Cameron is hoping to give angry Metro-North riders a chance to share their ire about continuing service woes.

On a new home page at commuteractiongroup.org, Cameron -- a longtime rail commuter advocate -- provides direct links to Metro-North's online complaint form and a search engine that allows users to email state legislators and members of Connecticut's Congressional delegation with complaints about Metro-North's service.

Cameron, who served as chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council for four years before it was dissolved by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last year, said his experience as an advocate showed that Metro-North Railroad and the state Department of Transportation give inadequate response to rider-submitted complaints, but act more nimbly when legislators take a customer's side.

"I was coming away with the sense that nothing was being done with those complaints," Cameron said. "My thinking here is the more commuters who are seen complaining effectively and with the right kind of information, the more that will encourage other commuters to similarly complain."

The collective anger of commuters sparked by two derailments in Bridgeport and the Bronx, N.Y., in the past year -- and continually stoked by other service lapses and bungled management decisions -- could be decisive in getting Hartford lawmakers to focus their attention on holding railroad officials accountable and providing the money needed to improve it, Cameron said.

Cameron said that as chairman of the state's previous rail council, he felt Metro-North and the state DOT couldn't be forced to show if they had acted to resolve problems identified by commuters such as conductors failing to take tickets, consistently late trains, or service disruptions.

"Coconspirator with Metro-North in this disaster is the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which has joined with the railroad in an obfuscation of its many mistakes," Cameron said. "It is CDOT which hires Metro-North to run our trains, yet never seems to hold the railroad accountable when things go consistently wrong."

State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said that providing a mechanism for commuters to regularly and forcefully remind legislators statewide about the worsening condition of the underfunded New Haven Line is a welcome development.

When legislation is proposed in Hartford that decides state transportation funding priorities, it's discussed during the daytime when riders can't participate in the process, making it easier for legislators not to recognize an urgent need to improve the railroad's failing infrastructure, she said.

"The fact of the matter is the legislators upstate have absolutely no idea what these people are going through and I don't know how much they care," Lavielle said. "The problem is if this railroad breaks down, it is bad for the whole state when the roads clog up."

John Hartwell, vice chairman of the recently reconstituted Connecticut Rail Commuter Council which represents rail users statewide, said the new effort could help solve a longtime difficulty of keeping legislators informed about both old and new commuter problems.

While members of the council are appointed by legislators and other state officials, the main focus of the council's efforts is direct cooperation with the railroad and Connecticut DOT to resolve problems, rather than involving Hartford legislators to pursue improving the rail line, Hartwell said.

"All of us on the council are appointed by people in state government like the governor and various legislators," Hartwell said. "You would think because of that, there would be a very strong relationship but there really isn't. So while we talk to Metro-North and Conn DOT all the time, the people who have not been in the conversational loop are the state legislators."

Allan Siegert, a Westport commuter who is a member of the Commuter Action Group's organizing committee, said commuters should reach out to their legislators for help pursuing improvements that will boost safety and reliability.

"The bottom line about what Jim is saying is that it makes sense to go directly to the people who hold the purse strings," Siegert said. "They need to be reminded that there are 125,000 votes out there that are commuters that could very well swing whether you go back into office or not."