NORWALK, Conn. — It is time to take an active role in managing Metro-North as a regional resource. It is clear from recent events that a more comprehensive approach is required. No sooner do we move forward with an infrastructure improvement — $10 million to replace at-risk transformers in Cos Cob — than we get word of failure of another part of the system. There has been a steady stream of news about railroad crossing accidents, weather-related delays, ancient drawbridges that get stuck, derailments, and now, at least two reports criticizing the agency for failing in its most basic obligations to its customers. The string of incidents range from absurd, to disturbing, to tragic.
The absurd: Last year, technicians pulled the wrong plug, killing power to computers that control train signals from Grand Central Terminal. Fifty trains came to a stop and their riders were stuck in the cars or at stations for two hours before the railroad slowly restored rail traffic operations. The highly touted new M8 rail cars are getting far less mileage between breakdowns than expected, leading to crowded conditions as cars are taken out of service for repair.
The disturbing: Last winter, a train full of commuters was stranded without power or heat for over two hours near Westport, while switch problems delayed a train that had been dispatched to rescue them. Service was disrupted for over a week when the agency took a substation offline for a large maintenance project, only to have the feeder cable fail to the backup substation.
The tragic: A commuter train derailed near Fairfield and side-swiped a train traveling in the opposite direction, injuring dozens of passengers. Four riders were killed in a derailment caused by a train traveling at 80 mph around a 30 mph curve. Preventable track worker deaths occurred in two separate incidents in the last year alone.
Connecticut owns the tracks, trains, the overhead lines and the stations. Metro-North is a contractor that is operating the railroad on our behalf. The contract between Metro-North and Connecticut’s Department of Transportation should impose specific performance standards on Metro-North, and should include ongoing reporting and monitoring of performance. As a state representative, I will work to add performance and safety evaluations to the contract and bring transparency to reporting so commuters can judge for themselves how well Metro-North is doing.
We must also take a hard look at investing in the infrastructure. Commuters already pay almost 60 percent of the operating costs of the railroad through fare collections, the highest contribution in the country, which is why we must make the best use of federal transportation funds, such as the $349 million the state is currently seeking to replace the century-old railroad swing bridge in Norwalk and $245 million to modernize the communication system. Prioritizing these investments with a long-term regional plan will allow us to spend limited funds in ways that will have the most impact on improving safety, service and economic vitality throughout the system, and will make Metro-North a byword for efficiency.
Metro-North is a vital part of our regional economic health, and until recently, had an enviable safety record. Much of what has gone wrong can be put right. With a comprehensive approach to transportation planning in the region, the railroad can regain its former reputation as a safe and efficient transport system and support economic development. It could, and should, help lure businesses to Connecticut, and become a central part of the planning and development for destination cities and towns along the system. Stations can be embassies for local tourism and opportunities for thriving commerce and community.
Former Norwalk Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel is a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives in the 142nd District.