Metro-North must adopt better maintenance practices
30-30-30 will never work until the railroad ends its wasteful ways
Gov. Ned Lamont’s 30-30-30 plan represents a long-needed, concrete goal for a well-operated New Haven Line. The travel times called for therein —30 minutes from New Haven to Stamford and 30 minutes further to Grand Central — are attainable using the right-of-way the state already has. The 30-30-30 plan has the virtue of replacing amorphous “state of good repair” programs that have no accountability attached to them. However, the governor’s vision will go nowhere as long as the management of the railroad under the Connecticut Department of Transportation and its contractor Metro-North Railroad lags behind global best practices.
At various points along the New Haven Line, DOT-imposed rules prevent trains from achieving the run times that are possible with the existing geometrical constraints. For example, even though a train leaving New Haven Union Station reaches track maintained for 70 mi/h just half a mile west of the platforms, trains aren’t allowed that speed until nearly two miles from the station. Transit researcher Alon Levy estimates that replacing movable bridges and adopting best practices like tightening track maintenance; eliminating unnecessary speed restrictions; increasing acceleration and braking rates from overly conservative limits; and increasing the bank on curves (not realigning them) would deliver the 30-30-30 promise.
In the presence of these changes, an M8 train could travel from New Haven to Grand Central making every stop to Stamford followed by New Rochelle and Harlem in 1:23. A super-express would take just over an hour.
Faster run times benefit the railroad as well as the passengers. The railroad can run more service with its existing car and personnel pool while implementing simpler stopping patterns. Enabling trains to make more stops would spread the passenger load out more evenly over different trains and stations.
A key DOT talking point —that ongoing maintenance is a unique constraint requiring constant slowdowns in off-peak service and additional resources— does not stand up to scrutiny. In 2017, Metro-North spent around $300,000 per route mile on maintaining its infrastructure—track, roadbed, signals, power equipment, stations, etc. That same year, Italy, the Netherlands, the U. K., and France each spent an average of around $200,000 for the same. Midday track outages and restrictions occur much more rarely in Europe than in greater New York, and service on rail lines is frequent all day, not peaky as it is here.
While Europe provides frequent and fast base service over the entire day by concentrating maintenance at night, current Metro-North maintenance productivity, however, comes nowhere close to permitting the infrastructure to be maintained at night. For example, out of around 500,000 ties and around 300 miles of rail on the whole New Haven Line from New Haven to Woodlawn, Metro-North plans to replace just 7,500 ties and 6 miles of rail this entire year. A modern track renewal train should replace that much track —ties and rail at the same time— over a few overnight windows. Its planned surfacing on the New Haven Line —24 miles— should also require no more than a few overnight sessions. Overpass replacements that could be knocked out in a few nighttime, or at worst weekend, outages have been dragging along for years. The 30-30-30 plan depends heavily on significant but attainable improvements to maintenance productivity.
Moreover, today’s capital construction productivity will never permit Connecticut to have a fully functional rail line, much less a higher speed bypass contemplated under NEC Future. For example, while fixed-rail bridges cost on the order of $100 million per mile in every other first-world country, DOT projects to spend $1.5 billion replacing the aging half-mile Devon drawbridge over the Housatonic River — with another drawbridge that would have a 60 mi/h restriction. DOT replaced the parallel, similarly-sized, I-95 bridge and approaches for less than one-third that amount. Any European country would build a 60-foot-high fixed bridge permitting well over 60 mi/h; construct appropriate approaches from Stratford station to I-95 Exit 34; and regrade the Waterbury Line and Naugatuck Avenue for a low-hundreds-of-millions of dollars figure.
Finally, to the extent that revenue needs to be raised for capital construction, DOT should militate against against excess on-board staff. The multiple conductors aboard nearly every New York area regional train help drive rail fares to some of the highest unit costs in the world. By contrast, regional trains around the world run with an engineer and perhaps a single conductor. These railroads have passengers scan or stamp tickets before boarding, after which they are valid for a set time. Random inspections with steep penalties for noncompliant or expired fares (generally ten times the longest one-way fare) enforce payment. Patrick O’Hara, who writes the blog The LIRR Today, estimates that LIRR stands to save over $200 million a year by adopting it.
Metro-North, a similarly-sized operation, stands to save about the same. That translates to upwards of $50 million back in CTDOT hands to improve the New Haven Line, a greater good for a greater number than preserving several hundred needless conductor jobs. Eliminating positions would undoubtedly sting employees, but retraining them for other needed jobs in the rail company or transitioning them out of the organization may soften the blow and has ample precedent.
While it is clear that Connecticut and the nation have put too little money into our infrastructure, the state does not deserve to have more resources handed to it unless it undertakes deep reform to control its costs. Gov. Lamont and the legislature must fulfill their promise of a cost-efficient, transparent government and get to the bottom of DOT’s wasteful ways. Connecticut travelers deserve a remedy to the state’s outdated practices.
Roger Senserrich lives in East Haven. Robert Hale lives in New Haven.
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