Metro-North & CT: Symbiosis or Stockholm syndrome?

FI-Talking-Transportation-Jim-CameronConnecticut has a very strange relationship with Metro-North. Some see it as one of mutual interest while others describe it as an example of the Stockholm syndrome, where a kidnap victim fights to defend his or her captor.

After the bankruptcy of the Penn-Central Railroad in 1983, Connecticut’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) was anxious to find anyone to run commuter rail service to New York City. The operating agreement creating Metro-North combined Connecticut-owned tracks and rail cars with New York state-operated lines in a bi-state shotgun wedding.

Connecticut subsidizes 66% of the railroad’s operating deficit in our state and Metro-North subsidizes 34%. But Connecticut also subsidizes 34% of the operating shortfall for riders in New York, while Metro-North picks up 66% of that cost. That’s symbiosis.

Today, 30 years later, the state of Connecticut is Metro-North’s biggest customer, representing more revenue and passengers than New York’s Hudson and Harlem lines combined. But make no mistake, Metro-North is just a vendor to the state.

The contract with Metro-North has self-renewed for the past 30 years and CDOT has never considered alternatives. The last time the contract went to arbitration, Connecticut was so outgunned by New York lawyers it came out of the deal with less money, not more. We got smacked down and have never had the guts to stand back up.

The operating agreement, now as thick as a Manhattan phone book (remember those?), is seriously lacking:

• It gives Connecticut no seat on the Metro-North or MTA board of directors.

• It includes no performance standards or penalties for non-compliance.

• It is so cumbersome and arcane that it’s virtually impossible to get out of.

• All of which leaves Connecticut with zero leverage.

As one lawmaker described it, Metro-North is like the old Lily Tomlin character, Ernestine the phone operator. When customers complained, she would say, “Too bad, we don’t care … we don’t have to, we’re the phone company!”

Clearly, that’s how Metro-North has treated its customers, including CDOT, over the years. They just don’t care, because they don’t have to.

And they also don’t care about how badly they have mismanaged our railroad:

• A recent report showed that eight Metro-North foremen falsified time sheets from April through August this year, claiming to be repairing bridges when they were actually goofing off driving to Pennsylvania to buy fireworks and cheap cigarettes.

• Metro-North dissolved its undercover inspection team in 2012 after an audit found similar malfeasance. Neither the unions nor management could stop the fraud.

• In a four-year period, Metro-North suspended 129 and fired four employees for serious safety violations. During the same period, the Long Island Rail Road (sister railroad to Metro-North) suspended 884 and fired 12 for similar infractions.

As the New York Post reported recently, “The approach to discipline at Metro-North revolves around a lengthy adjudication process — first, there’s a hearing; then a review of the hearing transcript; a ruling from a hearing officer follows; then the accused can appeal to the railroad’s vice president of labor relations. If that doesn’t work, an appeal can be filed with the state Labor Department.”

When you start paying higher fares in January, ask yourself, How can this go on? Who is running this railroad? And why is CDOT not outraged enough to even consider alternative operators?

Jim Cameron has been a commuter for 22 years. He was a member of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council for 19 years. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You may reach him at [email protected]  

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