Commuters and legislators voice displeasure over Metro North at DOT forum

After a harrowing year ranging from disasters to generally horrific overall performance and customer service, local Metro-North rail commuters and area legislators had the chance to vent their displeasure Tuesday night, as state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker headed a panel of transportation experts at a forum sponsored by the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby, a group headed by Jill Kelly and Carol Leighton.

The event was held at the Pequot Library in Southport and was widely promoted by the newly formed Commuter Action Group, an organization headed by rail passenger advocate and Hersam Acorn columnist Jim Cameron. There were nearly 200 people in attendance at the standing-room-only event.

“We’re here to listen,” Redeker said, explaining his role. “My goal tonight is to listen. My career in the transit business has been devoted to customer service, and the customer’s voice must be included.”

Redeker and his fellow panelists, including Metro-North Senior Vice President of Operations John Kesich, were able to listen to a wide-ranging spectrum of serious complaints and provide limited feedback. At times the meeting became somewhat unruly due to improper behavior from a small percentage of the audience, but for the most part the aggravated commuters were able to hammer home many important points.

Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143), who represents Wilton, Westport and Norwalk, led off the forum by chiding Metro-North for “implementing a new $70-million signal system that does not work. It’s become a matter of life and death, literally, that these problems get fixed quickly.”

Lavielle added that her Wilton constituents were upset that there is no longer a through train from Wilton to Grand Central, causing interminable delays for the ridership. She told the officials she had a petition “with 232 signatures and I get more” demanding the restoration of the through train.

Although last year’s derailment in Bridgeport and the fatal derailment near the Spuyten Duyvil station in New York were front and center at the forum, so were more recent abominations, such as a train stranded between the Westport and Greens Farms stations for two hours in freezing weather; the shutdown of the New Haven, Harlem and Hudson lines because of human error, and the striking and killing of a female pedestrian on the Saugatuck River bridge in Westport that was never reported to local officials.

“I have constituents who wonder if they are going to get home safely,” Rep. Jonathan Steinberg of Westport (D-136) said. “They don’t know if they will be trapped in a broiling train car for two hours, which happened last summer, or in a freezing car for two hours, which just happened in the same place. The rescue response is completely unacceptable. We are now calling the stretch of track between Saugatuck and Greens Farms the Bermuda Triangle.”

Although safety was a primary topic during the evening, everyday problems such as on-time performance and the rudeness of some Metro-North employees were also brought up by some disgruntled passengers.

“The bottom line is the service is deplorable,” said Westport resident Spencer Brown to a burst of applause. “The bathrooms are filthy, passengers stand most of the ride and the trains are now chronically late. If this was a restaurant, no one would eat there. There is no accountability. There doesn’t have to be because this is a monopolistic enterprise and people have to take the train to get to work.”

“I hope no one has to go to the bathroom at our brand-new Fairfield Metro station because there are no bathrooms there,” Ted Cook of Fairfield added.

“My constituents have complaint fatigue,” Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26), who represents Bethel, Weston, Redding, New Canaan, Wilton, Westport, and Ridgefield, noted. “These serious failures are unprecedented because they are serious failures on the part of management. My constituency does not know if they are going to arrive on time or even get home safely. There are many who are seriously considering moving out of the state because of this.”

Thomas Orofino of Westport ridiculed Connecticut’s pro-environmental policies, pointing out, “You talk about our carbon footprint. But look at the guy in the car stuck in traffic on 95 on his way to go to work. He’s got heat; he’s got a radio. Do you think you’re going to get him out of his car to get on the train?”

With time running out and a few dozen residents who had signed up to speak angry at being told the meeting would soon end, Redeker briefly addressed the ridership concerns.

“To sum up, we want to be the safest railroad there is,” said the DOT commissioner. “To move out of the state is unthinkable; that shouldn’t even be a question, and our concern is to keep you here. I don’t disagree with you. It’s been 25 years of neglect and we’re trying to catch up.”

Redeker explained that the state and Metro-North are implementing a 100-day plan to address the myriad issues brought forth in recent months. Redeker added that Gov. Dannel Malloy, new Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti and he had met Monday and they are ready to move forward with this plan.