As Metro-North goes, so goes Connecticut

The Metro-North Railroad is the artery that carries Connecticut’s lifeblood.

The New Haven line is the single busiest in the nation. Without Metro-North bringing workers to and from the city, the Gold Coast around Fairfield County couldn’t exist. That should concern all Connecticut residents, because the county pays an outsized share of income taxes into state government coffers and contributes to much of the state’s relative wealth. The health of Connecticut’s economy is tied to the health of the railroad.

That’s why the rising tide of disruptions, mishaps and full-on disasters on the New Haven line are so disturbing.

The most recent snafu occurred when a section of the 138,000 volt feeder cable in Mount Vernon, N.Y., failed, crippling service along an eight-mile stretch of track. The cable was one of two that normally powers the trains; the other cable was shut off earlier this month as part of an effort, of all things, to upgrade the electrical system.

By their own accounts, Con Edison and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority knew the cable meltdown was possible, but decided the risk wasn’t high enough to warrant a contingency plan.

Their confidence in the railroad’s resiliency is indefensible. It’s not as if the New Haven line has been running smoothly these past few years.

In the summer of 2011, hundreds of passengers were left stranded in Westport in 100-degree weather after the train stalled on the tracks. Riders stuck in potentially life-threatening temperatures weren’t even given the courtesy of an explanation for their predicament.

Then there are the movable bridges that straddle rivers along the coast. Four of them are over a century old and seize up on a regular basis.

Perhaps the most frightening indication of Metro-North’s deterioration was the derailment-turned-collision in Bridgeport this May, which injured dozens of passengers and shut rail service down for several days. Preliminary reports have focused on a faulty rail joint on the section of track where the derailment occurred. In an eerie parallel to the feeder line crisis, MTA officials had inspected the section a few days earlier and found the problem, but decided it wasn’t serious enough to warrant immediate attention.

The MTA isn’t to blame for all Metro-North’s problems, of course. Funding for rail infrastructure was neglected by New York and Connecticut for decades. And the MTA has pushed through some long-overdue upgrades recently.

Still, the MTA cannot allow itself to take risks so casually when the potential consequences are so dire. They’ve faced more than enough low-risk, high-cost scenarios to know better.

Rider advocate James Cameron of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council described Metro-North to the Connecticut Post last week “as a Third World railroad, and I’ve ridden railroads in the Third World that are more reliable than this.”

Cameron is right. What’s worse, though, is that the state is depending on this Third World railroad to cart it into the 21st century.

Rail may be an old technology, but it has widely come to be viewed over the last decade or so as the lynchpin of transportation infrastructure in the area. It relieves congestion on the already clogged roads and highways, and produces much lower environmental costs than most forms of travel.

Several communities have rediscovered Metro-North and embraced it as key to their economies. Fairfield opened the first new station on the New Haven line in almost a century in 2011. West Haven opened its first station this summer. Bridgeport is planning a station for its East End in the hopes the railroad can inject some life into that distressed neighborhood.

Other municipalities are reorienting their plans around existing rail stations. Earlier in the year, Stamford unveiled a design for a massive new business complex alongside its station. Stratford adopted “transit-centered” zoning regulations two years ago to bring more people within walking distance of its station. The town is just finishing construction of a condominium complex built expressly because of those zoning rules.

The MTA encourages towns and cities to think this way. It touts the economic and environmental value of a “mass transit system that works” on its website.

But all this effort to take advantage of the railroad is useless if the trains don’t run properly. Increasingly, they don’t.

State lawmakers and residents should demand better of the transportation system they pay for. The MTA needs to reevaluate its priorities so it can overcome the New Haven line’s existing shortfalls. Until that happens, Metro-North will constrain, rather than spur, Connecticut’s growth.

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