As Metro-North Railroad comes under scrutiny for a series of fatal accidents in the last two years, two Connecticut lawmakers are calling for the state to reconsider its deal with the beleaguered commuter rail operator.
The proposed legislation — submitted to the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee by State Senators Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, and Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield — would force the state to put the contract for the operation of rail lines up for bidding. Such a change could result in the replacement of Metro-North as the line’s operator. The state’s current contract with Metro-North, signed three decades ago, lasts 60 years, with amendments possible every five years. Boucher and Hwang, however, want the General Assembly to authorize an immediate renegotiation of the contract.
“Reliability and a safe working infrastructure are a state’s core function,” Boucher said in a statement. “We are in desperate need of better service, replacements, repairs and upgrades to roads, rails, bridges and ports.”
But James Redeker, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, expressed doubt over the proposed legislation in an email to the News. He noted that contract renegotiations can sometimes harm more than help. After the last negotiation, he said, Connecticut had to pay 65 percent of the line’s costs, whereas previously the state only paid for 50 percent.
Redeker also said finding a rail operator to replace Metro-North might be difficult, if not impossible. The New Haven Line is the busiest and most complex commuter rail operation in the country, he said, and no other existing rail service has the resources to replace Metro-North. He added that, because Metro-North is an interstate organization, New York would also need to agree to renegotiate for discussions to begin.
Boucher and Hwang both represent suburban districts in Fairfield County, where commuters are heavily dependent on Metro-North to access jobs in Stamford, Greenwich and New York City. State politicians from those districts have often complained about Metro-North’s services.
“The update and upgrade of Metro-North’s lines are seriously overdue,” State Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, said in a statement. “Commuters have suffered under unacceptable conditions as unnecessary obstacles are thrown before the workforce we depend on as the engine of our state economy.”
Metro-North has endured significant criticism in recent years, and a series of fatal accidents has plagued the rail line. Earlier this month, a train-car collision in Valhalla, N.Y. killed six; a derailment in December 2013 killed four. In September 2013, a power failure severely disrupted service on the New Haven Line for two weeks, throwing Connecticut’s commuter transportation system into convulsions. Last night, a half-hour power outage caused 40-minute delays on the Harlem, Hudson and New Haven lines.
In spite of the accidents and outages, not all look unfavorably on the New Haven Line.
Margaret Gleberman ’17, who takes Metro-North to New York roughly once per month, said she has found the rail line well-managed and competently run.
“I’m overall quite satisfied,” she said. “I’ve never felt in danger or badly serviced.”
Boucher’s proposal is just one part of a comprehensive transportation bill that she has submitted for consideration by the General Assembly. Along with other representatives from northern Fairfield County, Boucher has called for a large-scale revamping of Metro-North’s Danbury Line, which breaks off from the New Haven Line at Norwalk. State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said in a statement that riders of the Danbury Line have too often felt like the “poor stepchildren of Metro-North.”
Boucher has also proposed legislation that would extend current commuter rail lines to both New Milford and Kent, and possibly to the Massachusetts border.
Redeker said the Department of Transportation is currently searching for an operator for the planned Hartford Line, intended to begin service in late 2016.