Con Ed, Metro-North duck blame

Updated: 12:53 p.m.

Bridgeport — The presidents of Consolidated Edison and Metro-North took turns at a congressional field hearing Monday expressing regret and dodging blame for the power outage that disrupted the nation’s busiest rail corridor for 12 days, inconveniencing more than 100,000 commuters and costing the Connecticut economy an estimated $62 million.

Craig Ivey, the president of the power company, refused to accept financial responsibility for the outage, saying Con Ed had no plans to reimburse Metro-North for refunds the regional public rail company paid to commuters during the outage. He called the outage a result of joint actions by his company and the railroad.

The outage cost Metro-North between $8 million and $12 million in lost ticket sales, refunds and emergency busing and other costs, said Howard Permut, the president of MTA Metro-North.

Both chief executives acknowledged having no contingency plan for such an outage, forcing the utility and railroad to quickly invent ways to partially restore power and provide alternative diesel train and bus service.

“I am absolutely astonished at the inept, nonexistent planning, lack of backup, inadequate management and insufficient funding in preparing for this kind of breakdown in service,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said after the hearing he conducted.

“You still heard a lot of finger-pointing happening today, and that’s not good for anybody who rides this line, because that means that rebates may be delayed and improvements may not happen as quickly as they should,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who joined him.

With testimony that focused more on their creativity in restoring power than accepting fault for its loss, the Con Ed and Metro-North executives cast the Sept. 25 failure of a 138,000-volt feeder cable in the broader context of an aging rail system insufficiently supported by the federal government.

“The fact is that federal investment in mass transit and Amtrak is simply insufficient to address our current state of good repair needs, let alone to build redundancy and contingency,” Permut said. “The critical underfunding of our public works and infrastructure has to change.”

Ivey described the failure as a freak occurrence, despite the complex nature of maintaining high-voltage lines that are contained in pipes filled with an insulating oil that must be contained by freezing before the lines are worked on. The failure occurred just outside a “freeze pit.”

The ground was frozen outside the pit, which may have contributed to the failure.

“Having completed these freeze operations for decades – approximately 20 times a year – we have no record of a condition of this nature developing at any other time,” Ivey said. “Our investigation will include a forensic analysis of the cable, the pipe and surrounding work area to pinpoint the cause.”

Blumenthal opened the hearing by noting that the feeder cable that failed Sept. 25 was 36 years old, a half-dozen years past the recommended replacement.  He called it only one element of a system in need of upgrading at a busy chokepoint in the Northeast Rail Corridor.

“The fact is this is only the latest manifestation of the serious deterioration that Metro-North riders have been putting up with for some time,” said Blumenthal, who conducted the hearing as a member of the congressional Subcommitee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security.

The system has limited redundancy in its power, but the failure occurred while a second feeder line was out of service at Metro-North’s request to allow work on a substation in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

“To clarify, this is Metro-North’s substation, not Con Edison’s substation,” Ivey said. “The feeder was scheduled to be out of service from Sept. 13, 2013, until October 13 so that the line could be repositioned and reconnected to their new equipment in Mount Vernon.”

At 5:22 a.m. on Sept. 25, the remaining feeder failed, interrupting power used by Metro-North and Amtrak on an 8-mile stretch between Manhattan and Stamford. It was not fully restored until Oct. 7.

“For those 12 days, the nation’s busiest commuter railroad corridor was cut in two, crippling both the New Haven line and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service and resulting in very limited and, at times, difficult transportation options for these customers,” Permut said.

Ivey rejected repeated suggestions by Blumenthal that Con Edison reimburse Metro-North for refunds paid to commuters during the outage. He called the failure of one cable during planned repairs to the other an unforeseen risk.

“It was your line that failed, was it not?” Blumenthal asked.

“Yes, sir,” Ivey said.

Blumenthal told Ivey that Con Ed has an ethical obligation, if not a legal one, to pay for the failure.

Ivey said he has an obligation to his ratepayers, and the fact is that equipment occasionally will fail.

“We were down to a single feeder, and equipment does fail,” Ivey said.

James Redeker, the state transportation commissioner, told Blumenthal, who later was joined by Connecticut’s other U.S. senator, Chris Murphy, that additional redudancy of a third feeder line would be prohibitively expensive. But he said Connecticut is making improvements that will greatly reduce the risk of a similar outage in this state’s portion of the railroad.

Murphy called that good news, but he and Blumenthal said they were distressed to learn a similar effort is not taking place in New York.

“Clearly, in New York there is still vulnerability,” Blumenthal said.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, who watched from the audience, called the hearing useful, but ultimately disappointing as Con Ed and Metro-North refused to accept responsibility.

“It was a total blame game,” she said.

Permut, Ivey, Redeker and Otto Lynch, who represented the American Society of Civil Engineers, testified on the first of two panels of experts, following brief statements by U.S. Reps Jim Himes, D-4th District, and Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.

They were followed by John Hartwell of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council; Joseph Boardman, the chief executive of Amtrak; and Joseph McGee, the vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County.

Hartwell said the outage was only the latest sign of a system that is poorly maintained and often disrupted by weather, including Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, the Oct. 29, 2011, snowstorm and more routine mid-winter ice storms. The system also was snarled last May by a derailment in Bridgeport.

“The railroad is fundamental to Connecticut’s economy and to the qualify of life that attracts so many who choose to live and raise families here,” Hartwell said. “One hundred years ago this service was state of the art. It should be again.”

McGee told Blumenthal that while it is interesting to see that the economic impact of the outage was an estimated $62 million, it would be more interesting to see Congress commission a study of the positive impact to the economy that investment in better service would provide.

Boardman, the Amtrak chief, said the importance of the New Haven line is national, as it is a key link in the Northeast Rail Corridor. He said the corridor serves a region that is home to one-sixth of the U.S. population and generates 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

“In its current state,” Boardman said, “our system faces the threat of a major failure — with comparable impacts to this incident in terms of disruption — on a daily basis, for much of our infrastructure is aging and heavily trafficked, while capital investment has lagged.”

Amtrak operates 46 daily trains through Connecticut on the Northeast Corridor and Springfield line. The corridor passes through the state from New York to New Haven and along the shore to Boston. The Springfield line splits at New Haven and runs north to Hartford and Springfield.

Amtrak says the outage cost it 18,300 riders on its premium Acela service between Penn Station in Manhattan and Boston. It picked up 6,300 riders on regional service that continued with diesel powered trains.

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