Members of the legislature’s Transportation Committee wanted to know Wednesday whether the derailments, power outages, and fatalities over the past eight months are enough to renegotiate its contract with Metro-North or is it time to find a new operator?
Transportation Commissioner James Redeker was asked during a public hearing by lawmakers to give his assessment of what happened and what the state can do to hold Metro-North accountable. The state’s contract with Metro-North comes up for review in 2015.
In May, a train on the New Haven Line derailed in Bridgeport injuring 76 people. Later that month a worker was killed when a train was rerouted to the track he was assigned. In late September a power outage sent commuters scrambling for weeks as Con Edison looked to replace an electrical cable. Then earlier this month four people died when a Metro-North train derailed in the Bronx.
Could the state, which owns the tracks and the cars, find a new operator?
“There are other operators in the rail world,” Redeker said. But he said “it would not be easy” to switch operators.
He said Metro-North is the “busiest, biggest railroad in the country.” The second issue is that while Connecticut owns the track to its border, Metro-North owns the rest and “the service is pretty well woven together.”
If the state decided to hire a new operator, it would probably be hiring the same personnel because there just aren’t “that many railroaders just hanging out willing to come in and start a new service,” Redeker said.
Sen. Andrew Maynard, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said relying on one operator for the railroad concerns him because it means the state has very little leverage.
Redeker acknowledged there’s a lot of uncertainty in general about what’s being done and if the system is safe and he thinks it may be a matter of better communication.
“No one knows there’s been millions of dollars to bring the system to a state where it’s never been before,” Redeker said. “…I’m more confident than ever in the railroad.”
He said he hopes that communication will improve. Just this week Metro-North and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority agreed to submit monthly reports to the state at the request of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“They’re in investing in people. They’re investing in technology. And they’re investing in track and infrastructure,” Redeker said.
He said more importantly they’re moving away from a “rules” culture and toward a safety culture where employees are encouraged to report or make decisions about anything that could impact safety.
Rep. Antonio Guerrera, the other co-chairman of the committee, said when the state of Connecticut is paying 70 percent of the bill, it should have a much bigger voice when it comes some of these decisions.
Sen. Toni Boucher, the ranking Republican on the committee, told Redeker that a lot of what he was hearing Wednesday was “anger.”
“Cause that confidence that you’ve expressed has been eroded,” Boucher said. “Right now there is a credibility issue.”
She said for the first time from commuters who say they “feel at risk in taking our trains. I’ve never heard that before.”
She said it might be good to vet other vendors to get a lot of these issues to the forefront and see where the problems lie. She said the derailment in Bridgeport on May 17 highlighted the fact that cyclical maintenance wasn’t being done.
The incident on May 17 is still under investigation by the National Transportation Strategy Board, Redeker said. He said they suspect it was track condition, so Metro-North engaged a consultant to come in an inspect the rails. That inspection has slowed down service from Connecticut to New York City and those slowdowns aren’t expected to end until April.
“To their credit, Metro-North inspects and maintains its track infrastructure at and above federal railroad guidelines,” Redeker said.
Redeker stressed that each of the incidents this year were different and technology does have a role to play to some extent. He said it’s the communication that’s lacking.
However, Boucher said that the state has a fiduciary responsibility to look at the contract Metro-North and the MTA have with the state.
When the General Assembly reconvenes officials from Metro-North will be invited to address the committee, Guerrera said.