Commuters rail against Metro-North performance

Train passenger Rob Oliver of New Haven took this photo of the Metro-North train derailment in Fairfield in 2013.
Train passenger Rob Oliver of New Haven took this photo of the Metro-North train derailment in Fairfield in 2013.

After a harrowing year ranging from disasters to generally horrific overall performance and customer service, local Metro-North rail commuters and area legislators had the chance to vent their displeasure Tuesday night.

James Redeker, state Department of Transportation commissioner, headed a panel of transportation experts at a forum sponsored by the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby, a group headed by Jill Kelly and Carol Leighton, at the Pequot Library in Southport.

The event was widely promoted by the newly formed Commuter Action Group, an organization headed by rail passenger advocate and Hersam Acorn Newspapers columnist Jim Cameron.

Nearly 200 people were in attendance at the standing-room-only event.

Listening to the customer

“We’re here to listen,” said Redeker, explaining his role. “My goal tonight is to listen. My career in the transit business has been devoted to customer service, and the customer’s voice must be included.”

Redeker and his fellow panelists, including Metro-North Senior Vice President of Operations John Kesich, were able to listen to a wide-ranging spectrum of serious complaints and provide limited feedback.

At times the meeting became somewhat unruly due to improper behavior from a small percentage of the audience, but for the most part the aggravated commuters were able to hammer home many important points.

‘A matter of life and death’

Rep. Gail Lavielle, a Republican from Wilton, led off the forum by chiding Metro-North for “implementing a new $70-million signal system that does not work. It’s become a matter of life and death, literally, that these problems get fixed quickly.”

Lavielle added that her Wilton constituents were upset that there is no longer a through train from Wilton to Grand Central, causing interminable delays for the ridership. She told the officials she had a petition — “with 232 signatures and I can get more” — demanding the restoration of the through train.

Although last year’s derailment in Bridgeport and the fatal derailment near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx, N.Y., were front and center at the forum, so were more recent abominations, such as a train stranded between the Westport and Greens Farms stations for two hours in freezing weather; the shutdown of the New Haven, Harlem and Hudson lines because of human error, and the striking and killing of a female pedestrian on the Saugatuck River bridge in Westport that was never reported to local officials.

‘The Bermuda Triangle’ for passengers

“I have constituents who wonder if they are going to get home safely,” said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Democrat from Westport. “They don’t know if they will be trapped in a broiling train car for two hours, which happened last summer, or in a freezing car for two hours, which just happened in the same place.

“The rescue response is completely unacceptable,” Steinberg said. “We are now calling the stretch of track between Saugatuck and Greens Farms the Bermuda Triangle.”

Filthy bathrooms, having to stand

Although safety was a primary topic during the evening, everyday problems such as on-time performance and the rudeness of some Metro-North employees were also brought up by some disgruntled passengers.

“The bottom line is the service is deplorable,” said Westport resident Spencer Brown to a burst of applause. “The bathrooms are filthy, passengers stand most of the ride, and the trains are now chronically late. If this was a restaurant, no one would eat there.

“There is no accountability,” Brown said. “There doesn’t have to be because this is a monopolistic enterprise and people have to take the train to get to work.”

Ted Cook of Fairfield added, “I hope no one has to go to the bathroom at our brand-new Fairfield Metro station because there are no bathrooms there.”

People may move out of state

“My constituents have complaint fatigue,” said state Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican from Wilton. “These serious failures are unprecedented because they are serious failures on the part of management.

“My constituency does not know if they are going to arrive on time or even get home safely,” Boucher said. “There are many who are seriously considering moving out of the state because of this.”

Thomas Orofino of Westport ridiculed Connecticut’s pro-environmental policies, pointing out, “You talk about our carbon footprint. But look at the guy in the car stuck in traffic on 95 on his way to go to work. He’s got heat; he’s got a radio. Do you think you’re going to get him out of his car to get on the train?”

Implementing a 100-day plan

With time running out and a few dozen residents who had signed up to speak angry at being told the meeting would soon end, Redeker briefly addressed the ridership concerns.

“To sum up, we want to be the safest railroad there is,” the DOT commissioner said. “To move out of the state is unthinkable; that shouldn’t even be a question, and our concern is to keep you here. I don’t disagree with you. It’s been 25 years of neglect and we’re trying to catch up.”

Redeker explained that the state and Metro-North are implementing a 100-day plan to address the myriad issues brought forth in recent months. Redeker added that a meeting took place Monday with Gov. Dannel Malloy, new Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti and himself, and they now are ready to move forward with this plan.