MTA Metro-North

Rail commuters on Metro-North got a Spring Surprise recently:  a new timetable with slower running times.  Rush hour trains now leave earlier and arrive later than before, adding anywhere from one to ten minutes to published running times, depending on the length of the trip.

Jim Cameron

But hey!  What happened to that 30-30-30 plan for faster trains?  Why are the trains running slower, not faster?  In a word:  repairs.

There is so much track work to be done this summer there’s no way that Metro-North can maintain its old schedule. In fact, the on-time performance stats from last summer’s construction hit a record low, sometimes hitting just 82 percewnt.  Put another way… the new Spring timetable more accurately reflects the speed of service the railroad can actually deliver, not the service it would like to deliver.

So instead of trains running late, they’ll be on time and the schedule will be more reliable, if slower.

All of this timetable adjusting has been in the works since last fall, though the railroad clearly could have done a better job explaining the whys and hows of the changes.  Big projects like the Atlantic Street bridge replacement in Stamford and the Walk Bridge project in Norwalk are taking one, and in some cases, two tracks out of service.

Necessary “undercutting,” removing years of accumulated rock ballast under rail ties, can take out a track for weeks at a time.  And all four running tracks will eventually need that undercutting work.

That leaves the railroad trying to run a four-track service with a 25 – 50 percent reduction in resources.  And that, as their computer simulations have shown, means slower service. And all of this assumes nothing else goes wrong.

If there’s an unexpected broken rail, a signal problem or power issue, the railroad will jump on repairs immediately —  causing other delays on top of the planned work.  In other words, it’s going to be a long summer, folks.

And this is just the beginning.  One industry insider tells me these mega-repair projects will continue for about five years, meaning these slower running times will be the new normal.

And the farther east you live on the New Haven line, the greater the impact of the slower trains.  Take Bridgeport, for example.

The current best running time from Bridgeport to Grand Central is one hour and 22 minutes.  Under the new timetable it will be one hour and 29 minutes.  But in 1963 the old New Haven RR could make the run in one hour and 14 minutes.

Why?  Because the original New Haven RR was well maintained.  Today the railroad is 56 years older and not aging well.  The signal system is well past its life expectancy (and can handle speeds no faster than 70 mph).  The overhead power lines (catenary) still date from the times of Woodrow Wilson in some areas.  And the tracks, as we know, are prone to cracking and expansion in the summer heat.

Safety should always be the top priority.  Remember the Bridgeport derailment and Spuyten Duyvil crash?  So if your trains take a few more minutes to get you to work, be grateful:  at least you got there safely.  I’d always prefer to arrive alive, wouldn’t you?

Things will get better.  Maybe not 30-30-30, but better… eventually.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

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Jim Cameron | Columnist

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.

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