Last Thursday, Metro-North Railroad’s top two chief executives expressed regret for a series of accidents on the railroad’s New Haven Line and offered solutions to prevent future problems.
The two executives — Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Thomas Prendergast and newly installed Metro North President Joseph Giuletti — testified before Connecticut Legislature’s Transportation Committee, offering a series of proposals to revitalize the New Haven Line. The changes, which Giuletti described as necessary, include better rail cars, slower speeds for travel and a “secret shopper” operation whose undercover MTA workers will make sure railroad engineers do not travel at dangerous speeds. The train that derailed in the Bronx in December, killing four people and injuring 63, was traveling at 82 mph — more than 50 miles above the speed limit.
State lawmakers had some spirited words for the Metro-North executives. State Rep. Antonio Guerrera told the Associated Press that he sees Giuletti and the Metro-North leadership as replaceable. State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton told the Wall Street Journal that the Connecticut Department of Transportation might look for a different contractor to run its rail lines.
But Giuletti responded that all but a few Metro-North employees have been reliable.
“Most employees want to put in a day’s work for a day’s pay. It’s unfortunate some of these stories have come out,” Giuletti testified, according to an article in the Hartford Courant discussing the recent Metro-North safety upgrades.
In a Sunday interview, John Hartwell, the Vice President of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, said that finding a replacement for Giuletti would be premature, as he has only been on the job for three weeks. Hartwell also said changes to the state’s contract with Metro-North transcend the authority of Connecticut legislators — New York State legislators must also approve any changes.
“The idea that we could find a different vendor besides Metro-North is far-fetched,” he said. “Like it or not, we’re probably stuck with Metro-North.”
The railroad’s tracks, signaling and communication systems, for which the states are responsible, are in disrepair, according to a recent report by the Regional Plan Association. The New Haven line alone needs $3.6 billion in “infrastructure work” by 2020 to maintain the rail. The report also said that the line’s five moveable bridges — those that move to allow passage for boats or barges — will cost $2.8 billion to replace or renovate.
Hartwell said Hartford lawmakers’ foremost responsibility is to fund these infrastructure improvements. According to Hartwell, system has rails dating back to the American Civil War and bridges dating as far as the turn of the 20th century. However, Hartwell added that he doubts the lawmakers will complete the task because they do not have enough money.
Rep. Roland Lemar, who currently serves on the House Transportation Committee, said finding the $3.6 billion that the RPA study demanded would be difficult. But Lemar maintained that railway service improvement will continue to be a priority for the Legislature, calling the state’s railroad an economic lifeline for the region.
“If you’re using [Metro-North Railroad] infrequently your 86 percent reliability chance is going to be okay,” he said. “But if you’re using it every day, that crushes your workplace’s productivity.”
State Sen. Martin Looney said the necessary funding would most likely be a combination of state and federal money. He added that the state would have to be continually mindful of its current fiscal obligations regardless.
Eight of 10 Yalies interviewed were aware of the December derailment, while only two of the 12 Union Station patrons interviewed Saturday were. Both groups agreed that Metro-North needs to implement new safety measures, though they said they will continue to use the railroad in the interim.
“Metro-North is getting old, it’s the sort of thing one would expect,” Sebastian Koochacki ’14 said. “Just like a plane crash, it’s something that is an inherent risk, but it’s so rare that people don’t stop flying.”
David Hendricks, a member of the Commuter Rail Council, said he is optimistic about the new measures Metro-North executives are implementing, though he cautioned that their effectiveness might not be immediately apparent.
“The problem is that you don’t always know if oversight works and you don’t always know what it prevented,” Hendricks said.
The state renews its contract with Metro-North once every five years, and the next renewal date is set for 2015.