Neal Edelson, a Greens Farms commuter, got a round of applause Tuesday night when he accused state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker and Metro-North Railroad officials of not caring about late trains or improving New Haven Line service.
"Everybody is thanking you guys for coming here tonight to listen to us, but I don't know why," Edelson said. "That's part of your job."
During what was billed as a "Commuter Speakout" at the Pequot Library in Fairfield, Edelson echoed others who vented about trains that run 20 minutes late and a lack of transparency from the railroad since last May's derailment of a train in Bridgeport, just east of the Fairfield border, triggered increased track work.
"I ask a conductor about why there is cold air coming into the train and he'll say, `It's a 40-year-old train,' " Edelson said. "That's not a good answer."
Other Fairfield County commuters also lambasted Redeker and the Metro-North executives in front of a crowd of more than 100 people at the forum. It was sponsored by the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby, a group headed by Jill Kelly and Carol Leighton that focuses on state transportation issues.
The "Speakout" was widely promoted by the Commuter Action Group, which is headed by former state-appointed rail council chairman Jim Cameron, which has attracted attention from hundreds of disgruntled New Haven Line commuters with its website, Twitter feed and Facebook page urging riders to demand better service.
"We shouldn't be the first people telling you this, and we can't be," Edelson said to rail officials at the forum. "I'll tell you, I really don't believe you guys care enough."
Spencer Brown, of Westport, said the problems at the railroad, which grew worse in 2013, are rooted in a lack of accountability for most Metro-North employees in all areas, from safety to customer service.
"If this was a restaurant, nobody would eat here, and if it was an airline, nobody would fly," Brown said. "The real problem is that there is no responsibility being taken, and there won't be any change until that happens."
This week, the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, a 15-member body meant to serve as the official voice of commuters, announced it would hold its own forum at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Stamford Government Center. Redeker is expected to attend that gathering as well, along with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
The state's official council, which has met only intermittently and has had multiple resignations in the six months since it was reconstituted to represent rail riders statewide under a government streamlining law proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The council issued a news release on its forum last week, said its chairwoman, Terri Cronin.
"All I wanted to do is get people here in front of (the officials) and get a dialogue going," Cameron said after the Fairfield meeting.
Carol Leighton, co-chairwoman of the Citizens Transportation Lobby, said the group decided to have Tuesday's forum because commuters deserved a chance to describe how the railroad's ongoing problems were affecting their lives.
"You should just be embarrassed ... We're not only customers, we're family people," said Thomas Orofino, a Greens Farms commuter. "People rely on the railroad to get them to work in the morning in a reasonably refreshed state, so they can be productive."
Redeker said he believes that a 100-day plan that new Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti pledged to deliver within two weeks will result in measurable improvements to on-time service and greater clarity about needed repairs.
"A top priority for the state of Connecticut is to make this railroad the safest railroad," Redeker said. "The fact (that) there is a question among people whether they should ride it or move out of state is a very sore concern for us. We're addressing the question of upgrading as quickly as possible."
Mitch Fuchs, a member of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, said the council being beaten to the punch by a different group illustrates how Cameron and others have surpassed the state's official group.
"Our main sword has always been the media, and you've seen us fade while Jim's group has gone on," Fuchs said. "We've been ineffective. Where have we been the last four weeks? We're talking about our bylaws, freedom of information and expanding service around the state instead of our immediate needs."
In 2012, the previous version of the council was critical of state transportation officials for not publicizing a hearing on a controversial redevelopment of the Stamford train station. The group was successful in turning out dozens of commuters to the hearing who spoke adamantly against the proposed station project if it would create more distant parking from the railway tracks.
Malloy proposed making the council a statewide organization in January 2013 as part of House Bill 6363, which targeted more than two dozen citizens advisory groups for elimination, consolidation or reorganization.
A week before Christmas, the new group canceled a scheduled meeting at the last minute, at which Redeker was expected to speak about service problems and delays on Metro-North when several members said they could not attend.
Cronin said the official state rail council, which first met over the summer of 2013, hopes to establish a set meeting schedule and have a website soon.
"The problem is, we need to have some money to host (the website)," Cronin said.
John Kesich, Metro-North's senior vice president of operations, said the vast majority of people who work for the railroad are upset about its travails and service disruptions.
"I know at least 4,900 of 5,000 people at Metro-North care," Kesich said.
"That's not true," Edelson retorted.