First of all, despite what some commuters may recently be thinking, the folks who manage and operate Metro-North are not stupid. Inconsiderate and uncommunicative sometimes, but not stupid.
Metro-North managers and employees are railroad professionals, justifiably proud of the 96%-plus on-time performance they achieve on one of the busiest commuter lines in the United States. They want to run a world class railroad.
But they can only achieve as much as the states of New York and Connecticut fund them to do.
In recent years, our legislature gave Metro-North $1 billion-plus to buy badly needed new rail cars, a very visible manifestation to commuters that the state was investing in the railroad. But sufficient funding for inspection and repair of the tracks, the catenary and our 100-year-old bridges is still lacking.
New cars are sexy. Giving them safe tracks to run on and wires to power them, not so sexy.
Only a single backup
What happened when Con Ed’s backup feeder cable failed at 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 25 was not an act of God, but human error. The two agencies knew the main power cable was going to be out of service and they calculated, very wrongly, that the single backup cable would be sufficient.
This raises a number of questions: Did Con Ed monitor that backup cable for signs it might fail? Was it wise to save $1 million by not constructing a backup for the backup?
Does Homeland Security know or care that the entire Metro-North and Amtrak Northeast Corridor were depending on this calculation? How many other power sub-stations are in similar danger?
Economic impact on region
The effects of this outage are many: the inconvenience to 125,000 daily riders, the economic impact on those commuters’ businesses, and longer-term, the economic recovery of our state and nation.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy quickly called this outage just the latest black eye for our state in his efforts to attract businesses to set up shop in the Nutmeg State.
Even if they can tolerate our high taxes, do relocating CEOs really want to rely on Metro-North to get their employees to and from work or fight the perpetual rush-hour crawl on Interstate 95?
Have we reached the tipping point?
I fear some individual commuters may be reaching the tipping point. There are plenty of other New York suburbs with good schools and more reliable transportation.
If fed-up Connecticut commuters decide to vote with their feet and move to Westchester or Long Island, they will take their taxes with them. Remember that Fairfield County pays 40% of all state taxes in Connecticut, so anything that makes our neighborhoods less attractive hurts the entire state.
Impact on real estate values
And it hurts our house values, too. People live in the towns served by Metro-North because they need to rely on those trains to get to high-paying jobs in New York City.
When that trust is broken, those towns and their houses become less attractive.
If housing values sag, town taxes will have to go up. The schools will suffer, making our towns even less desirable for those leaving the city for the good life in the ’burbs.
Reliable train service at an affordable price is what makes Fairfield County thrive. When you begin to doubt the ability of the railroad to keep operating, let alone be on time, it may be time to rethink where you live.
Jim Cameron of Darien is a member of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. Reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com.