In the wake of a terrible 2013, state lawmakers questioned Wednesday whether Connecticut should get rid of the Metro-North Railroad as the New Haven Line's operator, a move state that transportation Commissioner James Redeker said would in all probability not result in a better railway.
"It seems to me you have a potential partner on the New York side of the line that might be equally concerned and that might change the calculus of the relationship," state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said.
By working together, Connecticut and New York might win sweeping changes from Metro-North if they jointly pressed the railroad for more transparency into how it manages safety day to day. The two states might even find another company to provide rail service, he said.
"Do you see the recent instances as a call to action to work differently with the New York side of the equation to use the combined leverage to be more assertive in your leadership with Metro-North?" Steinberg asked, referring to the derailment on the Hudson Line in November and in Bridgeport in May.
Other members of the state Transportation Committee asked Redeker whether a different operator might be able to run the New Haven Line as well or better than Metro-North has. State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said that publicly bidding out the operation of the New Haven Line would create competition that would push Metro-North to show more transparency to reassure the public it is operating responsibly.
State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, said he has wondered whether giving the Connecticut Department of Transportation the power to set penalties or other mechanisms for failing to complete certain tasks might improve operations.
He also said he is worried there may be other hidden infrastructure risks that might cause more accidents, and whether Metro-North should have identified safety improvements to control train speeds and inspect tracks better without having to be prompted by the Bridgeport and Bronx derailments.
"Is there something that could cause another accident in another few months?" Maynard asked Redeker. " ... In some quarters it has been suggested we should sever our relationship with Metro-North, and if that were to happen, what would it take and who could replace them as a vendor?"
Redeker cautioned against seeking another provider to replace Metro-North, for several reasons. He said the state's operating agreement with Metro-North is renewed every five years, but that if the state were to seek to control Metro-North's internal operations, such as on-board inspections, they would have to be negotiated into the contract. And if Metro-North was not receptive to the proposed changes, the state and the railroad could agree to go through a process of arbitration, an unpredictable process which could result in a result state lawmakers wouldn't like.
Redeker also told Maynard that replacing Metro-North with another operator would be difficult, given that Metro-North would still operate on the same system.
"How would you overlay a different operation on top of a New York-only operation and make it work is not clear to me," Redeker said. "There are problems because of the capacity of the system itself."
Redeker said he agrees that Metro-North is having to make some changes in how it manages the railroad as a result of the recent accidents, but from most angles the concept of breaking off the state's current operating agreement would be drastic, he said.
"It's not to say we can't get better service, better performance, and better response from Metro-North," Redeker said. "That's why we asked for better communication because we saw a vacuum. But what has actually happened is that the railroad is performing exceptionally well in response to these issues." Read Full Article
`Better shape than ever'
The lawmakers also questioned why Metro-North didn't identify the types of safety improvements the Federal Railroad Administration is now ordering before the recent problems occurred.
State Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, said he wants more answers about why Metro-North didn't identify the need for signal system adjustments to provide automatic braking on two sharp curves in Port Chester and Bridgeport and Connecticut's five moveable bridges.
"The concern is why now and why it wasn't done before," Guerrera said. "I don't know, and I don't know what to say to my constituents, especially in Fairfield County."
Redeker said until the May derailment in Bridgeport, Metro-North's inspection standards had been successful in preventing injuries and fatalities since 1983, when it took over management of the New Haven Line under an operating agreement with the state.
"From an infrastructure point of view the investment made ... I'm comfortable the railroad is in better shape than it has ever been," Redeker said of the effort. --¦ Their track record for over 30 some odd years has been exemplary; they are the busiest commuter rail, with the highest performance."
Demand for transparency
Steinberg questioned why Metro-North wasn't more transparent with its safety protocols and inspections. Even before the train derailment in Bridgeport in May, lawmakers have said they often felt limited in their ability to get information about service problems or other concerns from Metro-North Railroad, Steinberg said. He also said he is troubled by the question of whether the railroad kept an adequate watch on on-board engineers and other train crew members, referring to Metro-North's decision in 2012 to disband a special undercover unit of inspectors who rode trains undercover to monitor crews when an audit discovered they were falsifying work records for checks they didn't do.
"It seems to me if you find somebody not doing their job you fire them, not get rid of that job," Steinberg said.
Maybe the state and the railroad have worked together so long they have developed a comfort level with the way things are done that prevents the two parties from seeing how things might be different, Steinberg suggested.
"When you've been working together for 30 years, it is not necessarily a contractual relationship but a longstanding relationship, and you become very familiar with one another," Steinberg said.
A comfort level
Throughout the hearing Redeker reiterated that he has a high level of confidence in the safety of Metro-North's New Haven Line, telling the lawmakers that Connecticut spent $18 million to repair tracks from Greenwich to New Haven to repair flaws found in a more rigorous track inspection regimen adopted by Metro-North using ground-penetrating radar to detect problems with rails and underlying support systems.
Responding to Redeker's repeated statements of confidence in Metro-North, Boucher pointed out other difficulties the railroad had in prior years, including winter service crises that sideline much of the New Haven Line's aging car fleet, and heat-related problems in summer, including an incident in July 2011 when more than 200 riders were stranded on a train for 53 minutes in 105-degree weather. These serious lapses raise questions about the attitude if not the capability of the railroad to maintain service standards, she said.
"What you are hearing now, commissioner, is anger because that confidence you have expressed is eroded right now and there is a credibility issue," Boucher said. "For the first time, I'm getting calls from constituents that they feel at risk taking the trains."