Guest Editorial / State Sen. Toni Boucher
After only a few weeks on the job, president of Metro-North Joseph Giulietti has found that the honeymoon period of a new leader has come swiftly to an end. Members of the state Transportation Committee -- of which I am a part -- grilled him on the massive failures that commuters have experienced over the last year that point to a need for a complete overhaul. After decades of relatively safe and reliable service, Metro-North has entered a very difficult period.
At the informational hearing, it was made clear that the challenges facing Metro-North are not confined to funding and planning issues centered around 100-year-old equipment. Serious management and cultural problems need to be addressed to make the railroad more commuter focused.
The lack of a culture that promotes safety, along with management and system breakdowns has produced an unprecedented number of accidents, some of them deadly. In addition, derailments, power outages, delays and services interruptions halt Metro-North and provide no clear way forward.
Some of the commuter feedback I enumerated in the transportation committees recent hearing included: habitually late service; overcrowding; standing-room-only rail cars; uncaring attitudes by rail employees; trains making unscheduled stops or overshooting stops; non-collection of fares; cold cars in the winter; hot cars in the summer; unresponsiveness to complaints; lack of communication; and signage.
The failure of safety gates along the Danbury branch illustrate how critical it is to strike this balance. Though Metro-North has taken steps to prevent the equipment malfunction of the new computer signal system from endangering the lives of motorists and passengers, the effect on commuting time has been devastating for a rail line with more than 2,000 daily passengers.
One veteran commuter expressed the sentiment of an increasing number of riders stating that she finds the deterioration of service so maddening that she is considering walking away from her job of 14 years or moving someplace else because she cannot take much more.
In responding to the concerns aired by commuters and members of the committee, including myself, Mr. Giulietti i emphasized that safety will be Metro-North's No.1 priority, followed closely by restoring reliable service and better communications.
President Giulietti states in his first 100-day roadmap, "This plan requires returning to the basics of good railroading. First and foremost, however, we must rebuild a culture of safety at Metro-North to serve as the railroad's unshakable foundation."
A major technical challenge will be how to balance safety with reasonable commuting times. If commuting times become too long, riders will stop using the trains and move closer to their workplace.
Many of the challenges that Connecticut faces with Metro-North also arise from its 60 year contract that is out of date, opaque and one-sided. This contract leaves the state of Connecticut with 65 percent of the cost of operating the New Haven, Hudson and Harlem lines and no representation or opportunity to be a voting member on the MTA board.
It is the only contract of its kind that does not include specific performance standards, provisions for evaluating or monitoring a contractor's performance and methods for the state, Metro-North's largest customer, to enforce contract provisions. The only option open to the state for nonperformance is to walk away with 18 months' notice or go out for bid every five years. The next renewal date is in 2015. The state cannot make changes to the agreement, unless Metro-North agrees to open the contract or there is federal intervention.
I have a sense of urgency! Too many people are frustrated with the ongoing management crisis at Metro-North and worry that slow and unreliable service may cause them to lose their jobs.
There is much riding on Metro-North management's ability to learn from recent failures and turn things around. Area Realtors have told me that their clients might consider moving out of Connecticut rather than be faced with on an unreliable railroad to get to work on time.
Commuters cannot afford to put their livelihood at risk and the state of Connecticut cannot afford to lose its hardworking residents. Metro-North's new president pledges to get the railroad back on track. He seems earnest enough and is off to a promising start, pledging to work more closely with the state DOT and legislators in Hartford. Metro-North has been advised that we will be asking them to come back to Hartford with a progress report in a few months and that its contract is up for renewal in 2015.
State Sen. Toni Boucher represents the 26th district towns of Westport, Wilton, New Canaan, Ridgefield, Redding, Bethel and Weston. Boucher is also ranking member of the Transportation Committee and the Education and Higher Education committees of the General Assembly.