Metro-North Train Crisis Raises Serious Questions

October 1, 2013

By State Senator Toni Boucher, Ranking member of Connecticut’s General Assembly Transportation Committee

Recent reports regarding the continuing service disruption on the New Haven Line make it obvious that this massive failure occurred due to the reliance on a single power line to supply electricity to the Metro-North fleet. Although not yet confirmed, there are indications that this failure was not an “act of God,” but was caused because an alternative (redundant) power source and back up procedures were not in place.

A routine risk assessment conducted for such a vital public service would produce the following recommendation. When the repair of the secondary feeder is scheduled in advance, as was the case here, Metro-North and Con Ed should plan for the possibility that the one remaining power source could suffer an outage.

This is common practice in hospitals where back-up generators kick in if a power outage occurs during surgery and someone’s life is at stake. Our rail system should be thought of in similar terms. The northeast corridor is a lifeline to some of the largest employment and financial centers. Consequently, an incident like this is never isolated, but causes a ripple effect throughout the region, from Boston to New York, and through the most congested sections of I-95. To prevent potentially serious economic repercussions, we cannot allow disruptions of this magnitude to become a regular feature of rail service. Unfortunately, our current arrangements with Metro North discourage the sort of improvements needed to head off future problems.

The economic and public safety effects of this disruption have implications extending beyond our region. The lack of back-up procedures underscores broader issues of funding, contract problems, governance and oversight responsibilities that hamper cooperation between Metro North and the state of Connecticut. All of these issues deserve closer scrutiny. Once again, the focus of many has been drawn to our rail system’s costs, which expand even as reliability issues persist.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to get a clear picture of the actual costs of train service, since our complex and opaque contracts with Metro-North involve so many different parties that they have become difficult to decipher. Connecticut taxpayers cannot be certain if they are being charged properly and if those charges take normal wear and tear and upgrades into consideration. Upgrades of which are essential to the reliable functioning and regular maintenance required for such an important transportation life line.

Some studies suggest that federal intervention may be required to clarify a 60 year contract signed between parties from Connecticut and New York, which have already determined Metro North’s policy until 2030.

The problems that need to be addressed are immediate and urgent and cannot wait that long. A clearer assignment of costs and responsibilities is necessary. Additionally, what remedy is in place for Connecticut DOT and commuters in the event of serious disruptions? This type of procedure must be clearly outlined as well as the costs associated with upgrades and improvements to these important transportation arteries. This rail disruption is not just a serious regional problem, but one that has national implications for the public’s safety and for our national security.