Blumenthal’s Metro-North crusade: Proper (& political?)

Go to bottom of story for an interactive graphic on vote tallies in towns on Fairfield County’s Metro-North line in the 2010 Blumenthal-McMahon Senate campaign.

Washington — Reports of the resignation of Metro -North President Howard Permut may indicate that Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal  has drawn blood in his battle against the commuter railway.

“I think (Permut’s) resignation reflects the pressure that has been brought to bear for a more reliable safety system,” Blumenthal said Wednesday. “But a change in management has to be accompanied by a change in culture.”

It’s hard to tell whether the pressures Blumenthal has exerted on Metro-North helped Permut decide to leave the railroad. Metro-North spokeswoman Judie Glave would not comment, or even confirm Permut’s plans to leave.

But no one could argue that Blumenthal’s campaign hasn’t helped keep Metro-North in the hot seat since two of its commuter trains collided near Bridgeport in May, the first of a string of accidents that included the deaths of four in a derailment in New York.

For many years, the Democrat was a crusading state attorney general, and now he’s Connecticut’s crusading senior senator. In his short time in the Senate — Blumenthal was sworn in in 2011 — he’s taken on the NRA, NFL, NSA, energy drink producers, sexual offenders in the military and has plunged into countless other issues.

But few things have sparked the kind of passion Blumenthal displays in his campaign against Metro-North.

With the help of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Blumenthal has nagged Metro-North into adopting new safety features, including an alerter system in the back and front of every train, automatic speed control to enforce speed restrictions and cameras in all operator cabs.

Metro-North has taken steps toward improving its safety operations, including repairing miles of track and creating new electronic protections for employees on closed tracks. It has installed automatic speed protections on trains traveling the curve in the Bronx that was the site of the fatal derailment and plans to install “alerter” systems on all of its trains within a year. The railroad has also implemented a confidential system for employees to report safety concerns without fear of retribution.

“Metro-North’s primary focus is always safe and reliable service to our customers. We have had some very serious problems in the past year, and we have taken and will continue to take aggressive actions to fix them and prevent future ones,” said company spokesman Aaron Donovan. “We want to work with Senator Blumenthal and all elected officials who have concerns about the railroad, since we all share the same goal of safe and reliable service for customers in both states.”

Yet Blumenthal says the actions Metro-North has taken are not enough, and plans for other improvements, like the alerter system, are being implemented too slowly.

Last month, Schumer and Blumenthal held a joint news conference at New York’s Grand Central Terminal calling for the Federal Railroad Administration to demand the implementation of cameras that are pointed at engineers and the tracks.

“Shame on Metro-North for failing to adopt this system,” Blumenthal told reporters.

Blumenthal has also held a hearing on the failure of a Consolidated Edison feeder cable that stopped service on the New Haven line for 12 days in September.

During that hearing, he questioned Permut about safety issues.

“I was unsatisfied with his answers because I thought safety measures should move more quickly,” Blumenthal said.

He has also pressured the National Transportation Safety Board to expedite its investigation of Metro-North’s accidents, including one that resulted in the death of a track foreman in West Haven who was struck by a train after a trainee controller opened a section of track without proper clearance.

Last week, in response to the death of a woman on the Saugatuck River rail bridge, Blumenthal called on Metro-North to alert transit and local police every time a train hits something.

“This lack of a reporting requirement to local authorities is unacceptable,” Blumenthal said.

Metro-North said it has proper reporting requirements in place.

“Whenever Metro-North Railroad train crews believe they may have struck something on or near train tracks, they are required to bring the train to a safe, immediate stop, report the incident to Rail Traffic Control, and try to determine what was struck and whether the train is safe to proceed,” the company said in a statement.

Metro-North also said that train personnel stopped and inspected the train and surrounding area “but found no indication that a person had been struck “

A  Dec. 1 crash was particularly devastating. Four people were killed and more than 70 were injured when a Hudson line train hurtled off the tracks in the Bronx. Metro-North had never before suffered any accident-related passenger deaths.

But it was May’s crash near Bridgeport that focused Blumenthal’s attention on Metro-North.

“It was the near fatalities in Bridgeport that sounded the alarm,” he said.

With his seat on the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee, which has authority over the nation’s railroads, Blumenthal is well positioned to keep an eye on the Federal Railroad Administration and Metro-North.

“I feel a very immediate responsibility,” Blumenthal said.

Politics

But his high-profile campaign against Metro-North may also have a political purpose. Blumenthal had a slim margin of victory over his Republican rival, Linda McMahon, in Fairfield County during his run for the Senate in 2010. Metro–North’s commuter line runs through that county on the way to New Haven.

“He’s probably aware (the campaign) would be beneficial,” said Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University. “It’s a win-win. It’s an issue you can’t go wrong on.”

Rose said Blumenthal has always been involved in high-profile fights over consumer issues.

“It’s just part of his approach and it works,” Rose said. “He’s a household name in Connecticut.”

Jim Cameron, a commuter advocate and former member of the Metro-North Commuter Council, said, “The commuters on Metro-North have no better friend than Blumenthal.”  

Cameron also said he thinks that Blumenthal “has forced Metro-North to be more responsive than it would have been.”

And Blumenthal shows no sign of letting up on his watch over the railroad.

He said he’s concerned about a Metro-North survey that shows 25 percent of the company’s employees don’t think safety is a priority.

“Now that’s a very damning indictment of (the company’s) leadership,” Blumenthal said.

He’s also concerned about Connecticut’s financial relationship with Metro-North.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North and the state of Connecticut entered into an agreement in 1985 to share the cost of maintaining and operating the Metro-North’s commuter service.

The reason: In a unique situation, Connecticut owns the tracks the busy commuter rail service uses to shuttle passengers from Connecticut to New York and back.

The agreement means Connecticut pays 65 percent of maintaining and repairing the tracks, and Metro-North pays 35 percent.

Under the agreement, other operational costs are split, too, including the costs arising from damage and claims.

“Should Connecticut be paying so much?” Blumenthal asked. “Connecticut has contributed more than its fair share.”

Permut’s departure will not in any way change Blumenthal’s drive to reform the railroad.

“I am looking forward to a new era of leadership at Metro-North,” Blumenthal said.


 

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