What’s slowing down Metro-North?

FI-Talking-Transportation-Jim-CameronNo, it’s not your imagination. Service really is getting even worse on Metro-North. And there’s no sign of short-term improvements.

This has been a terrible year for Metro-North and its 120,000 daily riders in Connecticut. There was the May derailment/collision, the death of a track worker and the September “meltdown” because of a failed Con Ed feeder. The repercussions of these problems still affect us, months later.

Trains are late on a daily basis, even after the railroad adjusted the timetable in August to reflect longer running times. What used to be a 48-minute ride from Stamford to Grand Central Terminal is now scheduled for 55 to 60 minutes. And in reality, when you take into account all the delays, it actually takes more than an hour most days.

Why? Because of “slow orders.”

After the May derailments, Metro-North brought in some high-tech rail scanning equipment and checked out every inch of track in the system. Of immediate concern were the below-grade tracks in the Bronx, which have long been subject to flooding. Concrete ties installed between 1990 and 1996 needed to be replaced due to deterioration. Ties and fencing were also replaced in a job so large that, at times, three of the four tracks were taken out of service.

Admittedly, it’s hard to run the busiest commuter railroad in the United States with 75% of your tracks out of service, but the work was necessary and commuters were asked to be patient. At last report, the Bronx work was 80% completed.

So does that mean train schedules will soon return to “normal”?  Sorry, but no.

It turns out that the Bronx is just one of the causes of the current delays, which is something Metro-North didn’t tell us.

With new timetables that come out on Nov. 17, some train runs may be improved by a minute (yes, a whole 60 seconds), at best. It seems that all those high-tech track inspections since May turned up many spots where work is needed. And until that work can be completed, the trains running over those tracks are operating under systemwide “slow orders,” in effect cutting their speeds from 85 or 90 mph to an average of 60 mph.

Don’t believe me? Fire up your smartphone’s GPS next ride and see for yourself.

The railroad still blames daily delays on the work in the Bronx and wet leaves, but the truth is far worse. At recent NTSB hearings on the May derailment, Metro-North admitted it is far behind on track maintenance, inspections and repairs in Connecticut but couldn’t explain why. Until the tracks are fixed, trains won’t be allowed to run at full speed.

One thing they did acknowledge to investigators is that they don’t have the experienced staff to do the needed welding and repair work, having lost so many veteran workers in recent months to retirement.

The slow orders make sense. Safety should always come first. But why can’t railroad executives be honest with us about why we are suffering with these delays, how long they will last and what they are doing to minimize the disruption to our daily commutes?

Remember, winter is coming, adding another layer of misery and delays to our commutes.

Sadly, my mantra from five years ago has proven correct: Things are going to get a lot worse on Metro-North before they get better.

 

Jim Cameron has been a commuter for 22 years and is a member of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You may reach him at [email protected] or Trainweb.org/ct.

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