Hard times ahead for Metro-North

WilliamFreedberg_train-4
Photo by William Freedberg.

The bad news just keeps on coming for Metro-North Railroad.

A recent report by the Regional Plan Association revealed the precarious state of New Haven’s rail line, the busiest commuter rail line in the nation. At current funding levels of $200 million per year, the report projects it will take 20 years until the line is operating at its full potential. The “emergency action plan” calls for an investment of $3.6 billion through 2020 to renovate and restore the line and avoid the sort of derailments and major outages that occurred over the past year.

“From an infrastructure standpoint, the New Haven Line is grossly underfunded, and that’s been the case for many years,” said John Hartwell, a member of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council since 2009.

The deterioration of the line, which runs commuter trains from New Haven into New York City and carries all Amtrak trains that travel between New York and Boston, has become glaringly apparent in recent months. A train derailment in May 2013 halted service for days. Then, in September 2013, a major power outage left thousands of commuters without a way to get to work for almost two weeks.

The line carries 125,000 passengers a day between Metro-North and Amtrak trains — when it is unencumbered by disruptions that have haunted it in recent months. According to the report, the implications of further disruptions could prove disastrous for Connecticut’s economy.

“The economy of the New York metropolitan region is only as strong as the transportation network that supports it,” said Daniel Schned, Senior Transportation Planner for the RPA and the principal author of the report.

The line is of enormous value to New York City and its northern suburbs, as it provides New York access to a large labor pool, and southwestern Connecticut with access to jobs, he said.

Connecticut’s economy relies on the ability of the state to attract young families with careers in New York, Hartwell said.

“The thing that makes that possible is the trains,” he added. “If the train service deteriorates, we will become a less attractive place for these people to go … the economy of Connecticut is tied directly to how well this railroad runs.”

And it is southwestern Connecticut, particularly Fairfield County, that is the engine driving Connecticut’s economy. Fairfield County alone provides 40 percent of the state’s tax revenue, according to Jim Cameron, former chair of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council.

“If [the trains] are downright dangerous, people are going to move to Westchester and New Jersey, and they are going to take their tax dollars with them,” Cameron said.

The lengthy report, released this month and titled “Getting Back on Track: Unlocking the Full Potential of the New Haven Line,” paints a grim picture of the years ahead if further funding is not found. The report called for major track work and the replacement of aging signaling and communications systems. At current funding levels, all of this work would take 20 years to complete.

For the time that it takes to complete the project, passengers will continue to suffer from delays and inconsistent service on the nation’s busiest rail line. Opinions vary on the likelihood of whether adequate funding will be provided. The funding is needed to install new signal systems, repair bridges, and replace rails and overhead catenary wires, among other things. A consensus emerged from interviews with experts: the federal government must step in to help fund the necessary projects.

With his own re-election campaign heating up, Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy is considering using surplus funds for a tax refund as opposed to railroad repairs.

This is “absolutely the worst possible thing you could do,” said Cameron. Without enough money to keep the trains running on time, he does not see a tax refund as fiscally prudent, no matter how politically expedient it might be. Cameron said there are few viable options for obtaining the necessary funds without extensive federal support.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal has been an active voice in mass transit issues, especially concerning Metro-North. Since last May’s collision, he has called for new safety procedures. With Metro-North in such dire straits, however, simple rhetoric is no longer satisfying commuter advocates.

“It is now time for him to bring home the bacon,” Cameron said.

Senator Blumenthal said in an email that he will continue to work with state and federal officials to try to secure these funds.

Metro-North is a private corporation contracted by the states of Connecticut and New York to operate the railroads. Connecticut and Metro-North are joint owners of the New Haven Line.

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