Lawmakers: Time to replace Metro-North?

While several legislators said Connecticut should find a new operator for its commuter rail service to New York City, the state’s top transportation official said replacing Metro-North isn’t a viable option right now.

Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker defended the rail service, noting that while changes must be made in light of recent crashes and other mishaps, Metro-North has had an “exemplary track record” for three decades.

“Who could replace them as a vendor?” Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, asked Redeker during a Transportation Committee meeting on the embattled commuter service.

Maynard, who co-chairs the panel, did not insist upon replacing Metro-North, but he said Connecticut should investigate any options it has. “It would be a shame only to react to tragedy.”

Metro-North, which have provided commuter service for more than three decades, has faced a barrage of criticism over the past eight months after four high-profile mishaps along the lines linking southwestern Connecticut with New York City:

  • Two trains were damaged during a May 17 derailment in Bridgeport.
  • A train was misrouted onto a track that was out of service in West Haven on May 28.
  • A power cable failure along Metro-North lines in Mount Vernon, N.Y., disrupted the nation’s busiest rail corridor for 12 days starting Sept. 25, inconveniencing more than 100,000 commuters and costing the Connecticut economy an estimated $62 million.
  • And on Dec. 1, a train derailed at high speed in the Bronx, killing four people.

“What you are hearing is anger from the committee and from the commuters,” Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said, before asking how long it would take to investigate other possible vendors. “For the first time, I am receiving feedback that commuters do not feel safe riding the rails. Metro-North’s credibility has been damaged,” Boucher said. “I am convinced now more than ever that we owe it to the people of Connecticut to vet other vendors for our rail service.”

Any vetting process likely couldn’t be concluded before the state’s current five-year contract with Metro-North expires in 2015, Redeker said.

Redeker, who joined the DOT in 2008 after a 30-year career with the New Jersey Department of Transportation and NJ Transit, was invited Wednesday to give his assessment of Connecticut’s relationship with Metro-North.

“Thank you for submitting to our version of shoot-the-messenger,” Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, told Redeker.

The commissioner reminded lawmakers Wednesday that Connecticut’s rail system, like its highways and bridges, is nearing the end of its projected life. And given that, Steinberg said an increase in rail mishaps “can’t be dismissed as coincidences.”

But the Westport lawmaker also said that after working for several decades with Metro-North, Connecticut may have a “comfort level” with the authority that isn’t warranted.

Steinberg and others suggested that new performance standards be built into the state’s contract with Metro-North. But Redeker said that likely couldn’t be done without going through an arbitration process.

The commissioner also told legislators that many states, particularly in the Northeast, are dealing with aging transportation infrastructure, and there aren’t many transit services competing to work with them.

“There just aren’t that many railroaders hanging out” waiting to take over for Metro-North.

Even if Connecticut were to find a new vendor willing to run its commuter service, that business likely would need to hire many of Metro-North’s workers, at least for a transitional period, Redeker said.

Connecticut owns the rail lines along its southwestern shoreline and provides approximately 65 percent of the funds, or about $70 million a year, for Metro-North’s operating budget. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which owns Metro-North, is responsible for most maintenance on the commuter line.

Metro-North, which submitted an interim report Tuesday to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy outlining its responses to these incidents, will be invited to send a representative before the committee in January, said Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, the panel’s other co-chairman. The authority did not have an official at Wednesday’s hearing.

And though that interim report didn’t address whether operating rules were broken or how infrastructure might have fallen into disrepair, it indicated the company was investing in more staff and equipment while reorganizing its maintenance efforts.

Besides Metro-North’s internal probe of this past year’s mishaps — which the state DOT also is monitoring — the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation also have reviews in the works, Redeker said.

And while it is important to study all of these closely and make improvements, Redeker had strong praise for Metro-North.

“While we have been through a spate of problems, it is one of the best rail systems in the country,” he said.

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