Metro-North Railroad President Joseph Giulietti and Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Thomas Prendergast told the legislature’s Transportation Committee Thursday that 2013 was a “terrible year,” but they’re addressing the problems.
From derailments, a major power outage, a drop in on-time performance, and other issues, Metro-North Railroad has been in the hot seat with commuters and Connecticut’s elected officials.
“As a public transportation professional for over 35 years now, I know — as well as anyone — that you’re only as good as your last rush hour,” Prendergast told the committee.
Prendergast and Giulietti tried to assure lawmakers that it’s addressing the problems and waiting for the Federal Railroad Administration and NTSB to finish its investigations to see if there’s further action it should take.
In the meantime, the two rail executives said they’ve increased track inspections, organized a Blue Ribbon panel on safety, implemented speed controls, and started work with the Federal Railroad Administration on an anonymous safety reporting system for employees.
While safety is a top priority, lawmakers are getting an earful from the commuting public about on-time performance and other issues like getting stranded on a train in the cold of winter or the summer heat.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said when there’s a credibility issue there’s no better way to address that than being “straight with your customers.”
He said now that there are these speed restrictions in place on the curves and bridges the commute into New York is longer, but that’s not something “that’s generally known among your ridership.”
Giulietti said they’re also trying to improve the way it communicates with its commuters. Aside from the new app with train times, it has moved its complaint box to a more prominent location on its website.
“Right now, in terms of customer communications, we’re still operating like a railroad that’s on-time 98 percent of the time, not 86 percent of the time, like we saw on the New Haven Line in January,” Giulietti said. “That must and will change — even after we improve our on-time performance.”
Rep. Antonio Guerrera, co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, said what’s been happening here with Metro-North has been “appalling.”
“It might be coincidental when you’re talking about one or two or three items, but over the span since 2011 there have been multiple incidents,” Guerrera said.
In the past the committee tried to engage with officials at Metro-North and the MTA, but were unsuccessful. “We felt that Metro-North didn’t care,” Guerrera said.
He said there was a sense that Metro-North didn’t have to answer any questions because they were the “only player in town.”
He warned that if things don’t change, then lawmakers will have to think about making their own changes.
Prendergast and Giulietti urged lawmakers to be a little more patient with them. They cautioned against throwing away a 30-year relationship after one bad year.
“There’s a 30-year relationship. The last year-and-a-half has been very, very bad. We totally understand that, but there is a success story that’s second to none,” Prendergast told the committee.
He said there are about 25 commuter rail vendors in the United States and very few of them own their own right-of-way.
“For the older railroads that go back to the day that there was no public operation whatsoever, there are underlying agreements that help shape the evolution of the contracts we live in today,” Prendergast said.
He told lawmakers if they want to review the contract that’s fine, but “our focus is going to be on what we need to do in order to bring the performance back.”
Giulietti told lawmakers that it was a railroad that commuters used to set their watches to, and as soon as they get done with the safety issues they plan to handle the issues with the scheduling.
“I keep saying it. I need to look at the past to make sure we’re taking care of the problems that evolved,” Giulietti said. “But the focus has to be on first the safety end. Then I truly have to focus on a reliable schedule that will get people back to where the confidence comes back in, so that our conversations here are investments going forward.”