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Opinion: State needs to get on track with Metro-North

By Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143)

I’d like to share with you an update on recent developments related to Metro-North’s commuter rail service.

Fare Increases and Financial Issues

As many of you know, rail fares are set to increase on Jan. 1 by 5 percent. Most of this is the third and last in the series of 4 percent annual increases introduced in the fall of 2011 by the executive branch as a way to generate further revenues to balance the state budget.

I have consistently opposed these fare increases for two reasons:

  • They have added significantly to commuters’ financial burden during a period when Connecticut’s economy has shown little or no improvement.
  • The revenues from the increases have not been used to operate, maintain, or improve rail service. Instead, they have been diverted from the state’s transportation fund and used for other, unrelated purposes.

The 2014-2015 state budget removes from the state’s transportation fund approximately $120 million raised from mass transit fares and the gasoline tax and reallocates the money to other budget areas. I fought during the last session to pass legislation designed to prevent further diversions of transportation funds. Until that takes effect on July 1, 2015, however, it is unfortunate and unacceptable that the 2014 fare increases will not benefit commuters.

Accountability for Safety and Performance

This year has been a disquieting and frustrating one for Metro-North commuters. After a derailment in Bridgeport and the death of a foreman due to the misrouting of a train in West Haven in May came a power cable failure that disrupted New Haven Line service for 12 days in the fall. Then, on Dec. 1, there was the horrible high-speed derailment in the Bronx that killed four people. A number of actions have followed:

  • The National Transportation Safety Board has launched full-scale investigations of the derailments in Bridgeport and the Bronx. You can read about them here.
  • On Dec. 16, the U.S. DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration began a 60-day comprehensive safety assessment to review Metro-North’s compliance with federal regulations, and its procedures and safety culture.
  • In response to a Dec. 3 request from the governor, Metro-North submitted a report this week on its recent safety investments and protocols, including those introduced in response to the year’s events. You can read the full report here: 2013_metro-north-transportation_committee_12_17. Metro-North also committed to providing similar reports on a monthly basis.
  • Since the Bridgeport derailment in May, “slow orders” have lengthened travel time for most Haven Line trains. Metro-North has promised a return by next April to the weekday schedules in effect before last May.
  • Yesterday, the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee held an informational hearing with CT DOT Commissioner James Redeker that focused on Metro-North’s recent performance. It will be followed early next year by at least one similar hearing with Metro-North executives. Many subjects were discussed, and safety was, of course, primary among them. The fundamental issue that emerged, however, is one that I have been concerned about for a long time and wrote about recently: just exactly how much leverage does CT DOT have to hold Metro-North accountable for safety, service, and performance risks, errors, or failures to deliver?

The state, which owns the Connecticut portion of the New Haven Line’s tracks, has a 60-year contract with Metro-North to operate the railroad. The terms of this contract are, unfortunately, very obscure. How and how often is CT DOT to evaluate Metro-North? What standards can it impose? What are the repercussions for Metro-North if it does not meet them? What information must Metro-North communicate to CT DOT?

(Metro-North provided a rundown of measures it has taken to deal with its recent spate of problems and head off future situations. You can read the rundown here: 2013_metro-north-transportation_committee_12_17)

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