The blame game

Although both freight and passenger railroads have been investing in infrastructure, and although Amtrak’s 2012 ridership — 31.2 million passengers — was its highest ever, this country’s railroad infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, so much so that the American Society of Civil Engineers gives it a grade of only C+. And perhaps nowhere is that more evident than here in the Northeast.

In September, a 138,000-volt feeder cable failed at a substation in Mount Vernon, N.Y., cutting off power to Metro-North trains that run between New Haven and New York City, disrupting the nation’s busiest passenger rail corridor for 12 days, inconveniencing more than 100,000 commuters and costing this state’s economy an estimated $62 million.

In October, a congressional hearing was convened in Bridgeport in an attempt to determine how it happened and, perhaps, how to keep it from happening again. Both of Connecticut’s U.S. senators were in attendance. Sen. Richard Blumenthal expressed astonishment at the lack of planning and lack of backup that led to such a long service break. Sen. Christopher Murphy noted all the finger-pointing that was going on in the room.

Who was at fault?

Not I, said Craig Ivey, the president of Consolidated Edison; ConEd has no financial responsibility for the outage, which was caused by joint actions by the power company and the railroad. And besides, “... this is Metro-North’s substation, not Con Edison’s substation.”

Not I, said Howard Permut, the president of MTA Metro-North; it’s the federal government that hasn’t invested enough to keep the rail infrastructure in good repair, “let alone to build redundancy and contingency.”

Ivey said his company has no legal responsibility to reimburse Metro-North for the costs it incurred over the failure, estimated at $8 million to $12 million. Blumenthal said Con Ed has an ethical obligation, if not a legal one.

But the two top executives promised to do better. “Our companies will redouble our efforts to ensure that we are better prepared in the future,” said Permut. Ivey said his utility is still trying to determine what went wrong. Meanwhile, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has urged the MTA to take legal action against ConEd.

This month, a report may shed more light on the incident, but John Hartwell, of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, said the failure was only the latest sign of a system that is poorly maintained and often disrupted by weather. The cable that failed was 36 years old, well past its expected life of 30 years, although that may not have been the cause of the outage.

And that’s where the matter rests: A key stretch of the nation’s rail network seems to be as vulnerable as ever to equipment failures.

“One hundred years ago this service was state of the art,” Hartwell said. “It should be again.”



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