At a time when the Metro-North Commuter Railroad should be trying to rebuild public trust, the company instead has done little to reverse its negative reputation.
Public perception remains low. Connecticut commuters can face overcrowding on Metro-North, along with slow, late trains. Worse, unacceptable lapses in safety led to a series of calamitous incidents last year. A derailment in December killed four and injured 63 in the Bronx. A similar accident five months later in Fairfield caused injuries to 72 passengers. Just eleven days later, 27-year railroad veteran Robert Luden was working in West Haven on a track scheduled to be out of service when a train struck and killed him.
No wonder some commuters already think little of Metro-North. Thus, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was right to send the rail company a letter rebuking its recent decision to add minutes onto train times and reduce expectations for on-time performance. These schedule changes presumably will help trains adhere to speed restrictions imposed by the Federal Railroad Administration after the Bronx accident. However, in response to new restrictions, Metro-North should have focused on improving safety, rather than reducing service.
After all, in terms of safety, there is nowhere to go but up. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal echoed Malloy’s criticism with a study showing that Metro-North paid more than $500,000 in safety-related fines in the last decade. The report also found that, per 100 miles of track, the company had five times the number of safety defects as any other commuter railroad in America. A majority of these violations (about 60) were cases of improperly filed accident reports.
In an April 19 Connecticut Mirror news story, Blumenthal said the study indicated a “truly shameful record.” We agree.
Incredibly, some fines could be considered slaps on the wrist when heavier punishments would have been more appropriate. For instance, Metro-North received just a $5,000 penalty for the mistake last May that directed a train onto the closed-down track where Luden had been working. The company got off too easily with that and other egregious safety flaws.
Which is why Blumenthal, Malloy and other state leaders should continue to keep a sharp, critical eye on Metro-North. Newly enforced speed limits do not have to result in substantial delays for schedules that already are frustratingly slow. Instead, as Malloy argued in his letter, reliability, safety and “optimal trip times are mutually attainable goals.” Significant investment and a company refocus on secure, dependable commuter services would go a long way toward regaining degrees of public trust lost in recent years, after negligence at Metro-North allowed its operations and safety procedures to veer dangerously off track.