After a month of freezing temperatures and record snowfalls, the rail cars on Metro-North’s New Haven line — many of which were built in the early 1970s — have increasingly been taken out of service. To add to commuter frustrations, Gov. John G. Rowland proposed a 5.5 percent fare increase last week, adding to the 15 percent increase last year on trips from New Haven to New York City.
Vice President of the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council Jim Cameron said in good weather, 15 percent of the 343 cars on the New Haven line are usually in the shop for routine maintenance, but this winter about 30 percent of the cars have been out of use, causing numerous cancellations and overcrowded trains.
“There is no relief in sight. Things are going to get much worse before they get any better,” Cameron said. “To ask for a fare increase as this occurs is adding insult to injury.”
Metro-North spokesman Dan Brucker said light, powdery snow — which has been particularly prevalent this winter as subzero temperatures have kept the snow from melting — gets sucked into the cars’ out-of-date electronic equipment. In addition, 80-year-old overhead wires become brittle in the cold and often fall, leaving trains unable to function.
Cameron attributed the “monumental” decline in service not to the Metro-North operation, but to state lawmakers who have failed to secure funding for necessary repairs. He said Metro-North tries to fix cars as soon as possible, but with only 18 service bays and the need for specially ordered parts, the restoration process is exceptionally long.
“Metro-North is doing the best it can with a very difficult situation with cars that are 40 years old — the fare increase is just the icing on the cake,” Cameron said.
While the Hudson and Harlem lines on Metro-North will receive 300 brand-new snow-resistant cars over the next two to three years, the New Haven line — which has the highest ridership and oldest rail fleet — will not see any drastic improvements anytime soon. Due to differences in rail line designs, the Harlem and Hudson cars cannot be used on the New Haven line.
Harry Harris, chief of the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s bureau of public transportation, said the addition of 2000 new seats, or about 20 new cars — far short of the 400 needed for a brand new fleet — has been approved for the New Haven line over the next two to three years. Rather than spend $800 million to replace all the cars on the New Haven line, the state will be spending $150 million on a plan to rehabilitate the older cars. Harris said any additional improvements will probably not come for another decade.
“Every dime we have is already committed to other projects — we have a lot of other things that have to be done — we just don’t have the money for rail cars,” Harris said.
He added that a fare increase in the 2005 fiscal year is necessary because the Metro-North budget deficit was larger than had been expected.
But Cameron said the new fare increase will not pass in the legislature because commuters in Connecticut feel so strongly about the situation. He said he thinks lawmakers are starting to get the message about the poor conditions of the trains, and that they have already gotten a lot of complaints about it.
“Commuters are a stoic bunch that will put up with a lot. I think we have finally broken through and gotten their attention,” Cameron said, adding that during an election year commuters concerns could be especially important.
Brucker said despite poor conditions and increased fares, Metro North has actually seen an increase in passengers. He attributes the boost to a strong service record and a higher percentage of workers traveling within Connecticut. He said 97 percent of trains arrive on time, and Metro-North provides service to 30,000 customers daily within the state.
“You can’t beat it — it’s cheaper than driving,” Brucker said.
A public meeting attended by Harris will be held on Feb. 13 in Norwalk for the public to voice its concerns about public transportation in southwestern Connecticut.