Commuter Rail Council celebrates 25th anniversary
Published 10:25 am, Monday, January 3, 2011
STAMFORD -- For most of the Metro-North Railroad era of the New Haven Line, the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council has voiced the needs of rail riders at large and used its position to prod the state and railroad to meet them, Connecticut Commuter Rail Council chairman Jim Cameron said.
Since the early 2000's, the group has pushed in Hartford for the purchase of the state's new fleet of 342 M-8 railcars and the need to keep tabs on the cost of the overhaul of the New Haven Railyard, Cameron said.
"Once the older fleet of cars started to really show its age, the group became very involved over many years in getting the new M-8's ordered and other big improvements," said Cameron who has headed the state-appointed advocacy group since 2006.
In 2006, the group collected photographs and commuter opinions about poor station conditions during its Fix My Station initiative, information that helped inform the Department of Transportation's wider plan to revamp New Haven Line stations.
The effort arguably played a major role in the DOT's successful effort to obtain millions in federal stimulus money in 2008 to fund a series of station improvements, Cameron said.
"When the money came along, they were able to say those projects were shovel ready because we'd helped to identify those problems," Cameron said. "The DOT embraced the idea to help them quickly identify problems at the stations they were looking at."
This winter the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council is marking its 25th anniversary with a new logo featuring the silhouette of the M-8 railcar.
The group, whose volunteer members serve without compensation and are appointed by the governor and members of the Connecticut General Assembly, meets monthly at the Stamford Government Center and elsewhere to discuss service and operational issues on the New Haven Line.
The group was created by legislative act in 1985 to voice the complaints of New Haven and Shore Line East commuters to Metro-North and the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
"A lot of decisions that Metro-North made required the DOT's approval but we didn't always feel we were a co-equal partner and we needed a more formal body to address rail issues," said Christine Niedermeier, a Fairfield attorney and former chairman of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee who helped draft legislation to form the group.
Current members of the council and others said the group has played an important role in improving rail service in the state.
Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Jeffrey Parker said that the council has raised appropriate concerns to officials and legislators to block fare increases or service cuts, but has also provided support to the M-8 program and other initiatives when appropriate.
"Over the past 25 years the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council has proven itself to be an effective voice of advocacy for the thousands of people who rely on Metro-North and Shore Line East everyday," Parker said. "Their job is to hold us accountable and hold our feet to the fire and it's fair to say that they have succeeded ... The council is a key player, and key partner, in our effort to improve Connecticut's rail operations."
After losing state funding about a decade ago, Cameron said the 15-member council has kept a higher public profile using a website, e-mail alerts, an annual report, and rider surveys on key issues like the design of new railcars and station conditions.
"The single biggest thing we've done on the council is increase our public relations and media relations efforts," Cameron said. "We're more visible to the public."
Rodney Chabot, a council member from New Canaan who served as its chairman from 1994 to 2005 said the council played a part in pushing for the construction of a second 1,200-space parking structure at the Stamford rail station in 2000, and the historic restoration of the New Canaan rail station to its original 19th century appearance in 1998.
"That has meant so much to our town," Chabot said of the restoration. "The railroad did a beautiful job with it and it is a big part of the image of our town. Personally that would be my happiest moment as chairman."
While the council is often critical of Metro-North's shortcomings and the long wait for new rail cars, their backing was valuable in getting the new M-8 cars built, said Metro-North President Howard Permut.
"The Connecticut Commuter Council is among Metro-North's most vocal critics but also our most ardent advocate...," Permut said. " We have not always agreed, but the Council is a tireless proponent of the railroad."
State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, a member of the Legislature's Transportation Committee said Cameron and the council has worked with her to support upgrades on the 24-mile Danbury Branch line, including a $60 million signalization project to enable trains to travel in both directions that is underway.
In the late 1990's the council helped block a budget proposal in the Legislature to shut down the Danbury Branch line to save money, Boucher said.
"There have been times when people in the Legislature have not had maybe as good an understanding of how the rail system ties in with our economy, housing, development, and the building trade," Boucher said. "The council has always been extremely quick to step up and try to block anything that would be detrimental to its commuters."
Governor-Elect Dannel Malloy, said that he admired the commitment of the council's volunteer members to make improvements to Metro-North service.
"I understand the role of an accessible and affordable rail system must play in the economic development of our state," Malloy said. "Particularly to the members of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, I commend them on their organization, their advocacy, and enthusiasm for making Connecticut more rail friendly."
Staff Writer Martin B. Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com or 203-964-2264.