Connecticut Lawmakers Applaud Metro-North Turnaround

March 14, 2016

HARTFORD — When Metro-North Railroad President Joseph Giulietti met with legislators last week, he got something only slightly short of a hero’s welcome.

Lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — profusely thanked him, praised the railroad’s employees and talked happily about ridership and safety improvements of the past two years.

“What a change. It’s quite impressive what’s happened here,” transportation committee Chairman Tony Guerrera, R-Rocky Hill, said.
The scene was a 180-degree reversal from two years ago, when lawmakers were openly suggesting firing Metro-North.

Just days after Giulietti took command of the besieged railroad in early 2014, legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy angrily demanded that he explain the derailments, service meltdowns and employee scandals that had infuriated tens of thousands of riders.

At the time, Giulietti responded with a 100-day emergency plan to get operations on track, a pledge that nothing would come before safety on the rails, and a long-term strategy to repair the infrastructure, work culture and employee morale that had all decayed under his predecessor, Howard Permut.

“The situation a couple of years ago was probably one of the lowest points Metro-North ever had,” committee Vice Chairman Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said last week. “Now there’s good news and not much bad news. We’re back on track.”

Giulietti repeatedly insisted that the full management team along with the railroad’s 6,200 employees deserve credit for the turnaround.
“The railroad is getting better. We are not complacent — we have a long way to go to provide our customers with the excellent service they deserve,” he said.

Giulietti cautioned lawmakers that the railroad still needs two to three years of heavy reconstruction, which means trains will continue running slower than usual as work crews rebuild tracks, ties, signals, crossings, culverts and more.

“We’ll spend the next two to three years hitting it as hard as we have. We have to get to a point where we can go to a normal cycle of maintenance. We’re not there yet.”

Giulietti also said passengers shouldn’t count on onboard Wi-Fi soon. Wi-Fi is possible on buses and Amtrak trains, which have far fewer passengers, he said, but technology isn’t available to serve commuter train cars with 100 to 110 passengers apiece. Instead, the railroad is working to eliminate the dead zones that drop cellphone calls, he said.

Metro-North is also doing a pilot for bicycle racks on some train cars, and plans to double the number of quiet cars on some trains starting with the new schedule that’s due out in early April. Giulietti offered no forecast for whether bar cars would return to the New Haven Line, saying the decision on whether to retrofit some M-8 trains as bar cars rests with Connecticut’s Department of Transportation. .

The railroad is installing cameras facing engineers and approaching sections of tracks, and recently worked with its unions to establish a system for workers to anonymously report safety violations and other hazards.

Along with I-95, the railroad is considered the economic lifeline between affluent Fairfield County and Manhattan. It’s also become heavily used by New Yorkers and New Haven County residents commuting to jobs in Stamford. Last year, it broke its ridership record by providing more than 40 million passenger trips.

Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, and Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, both reported that they hear vastly fewer complaints from commuters.
Boucher and Lavielle, both ardent advocates for upgrading Metro-North’s Danbury branch, said it’s important for the state to know that Metro-North is more than merely a transportation system. Proximity to train stations is key to the market value of thousands of homes in southwestern Connecticut.

When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy tried to shut down the Danbury Line, “The entire area nearly collapsed. It wasn’t just Realtors complaining – builders, renovators and carpenters were saying ‘They just ripped up my $100,000 contract,’ ” Boucher said.

Giulietti said all indications show ridership will keep increasing, and said his staff is working closely with the DOT to decide whether the answer is acquiring more M-8s, buying double-decker cars for the branch lines or perhaps some other strategy.

Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey called the discussion “affirmation day for Metro-North at the Capitol,” and credited the new management team for respecting the work of its unionized employees.

Communication with commuters and legislators, one of the worst deficiencies of the Permut administration, has improved dramatically, Boucher said.

“When you testify, I get the feeling we’re getting the real information – straight-shooting information,” she told Giulietti. “You’re the real deal.”