CT: Metro-North Officials Promise To Get Railroad Running Right

Feb. 18--HARTFORD -- Admitting that something's gone seriously wrong, executives for Metro-North and the Metropolitan Transportation Administration on Monday promised that they're working to get the nation's busiest commuter railroad back on course.

They offered few specifics, instead saying that within the next 100 days they'll compile a comprehensive plan to improve safety, on-time performance and customer communications.

In a pointedly public appearance at the Capitol, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy acknowledged that management of the railroad, plagued by two years of crashes, derailments, service meltdowns, employee scandals and blunders, is in trouble with the tens of thousands of Connecticut commuters who rely on it daily.

"They've lost the confidence of many riders, and it's their job to earn it back," Malloy said at a press conference as he stood alongside MTA Chief Executive Officer Thomas Prendergast and new Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti. "They know the hole they've dug."

When asked what exactly went wrong at the railroad his agency oversees, Prendergast said there was no single answer.

Acknowledging "a breakdown in management," Prendergast said: "That kind of degradation was over time."

But he made clear that he expects Giulietti, who was hired from a Florida rail operation last month to take over for Howard Permut, to clean up the mess.

"An organization follows its leader by example. He leads by example," Prendergast said.

Fairfield County legislators have become incensed over Metro-North's continuing woes and its reputation for poor communications with customers.

Many are calling for the state to seek another company to run the commuter railroad in Connecticut, and Malloy emphasized that the state will seek proposals from multiple operators, not just Metro-North Commuter Railroad, to run the new commuter service that's scheduled to start on the New Haven to Springfield line in 2016.

But the governor conceded that "we don't have a whole lot of leverage" in the 60-year contract with Metro-North. The deal is about halfway through, and comes up for review every five years. The last time Connecticut challenged the pact, an arbitrator sided with the railroad and steeply increased the share of operating costs that the state must pay. Numerous legislators, though, say the state did a poor job of preparing for that arbitration, and would have a much strong case now.

Giulietti, who worked for Metro-North until 1998, said the railroad had the reputation of being "gold-plated" in the late 1990s.

"They were doing a pretty good job for a period of time, and have fallen off a cliff," Malloy said.

Metro-North has been through two derailments that killed four passengers and injured more than 100, an operational miscue that sent a train hurtling through a work zone where it killed a track worker, a botched maintenance job that shut down the system for days, and a mistake -- evidently an employee disconnecting a power cord -- that stopped 50 trains for more than an hour. Passengers have been left for long periods in stranded trains in summer heat and freezing winter cold.

Prendergast bristled when asked if the MTA's labor relations were part of the problem, and insisted that employees at Metro-North have a good relationship with management. Reports from the MTA inspector general last year revealed a series of incidents of apparent fraud, though, including railroad workers billing for bogus overtime and driving out of state on pleasure trips while on the clock.

At another MTA operation, the Long Island Rail Road, a union this month voted 500-0 to authorize a strike, and members of various operating unions have privately complained this winter that the MTA is taking a hard line with them after awarding a generous deal to the union representing MTA police.

But Malloy said that at a recent appearance in New Haven about investments in Metro-North infrastructure, he was approached by Metro-North union leaders who pledged that they're eager to re-establish the railroad's reputation and performance. He indicated the problems stemmed from higher up.

"For too long, people have been willing to take credit for the wins without owning up to the losses," he said.

Prendergast and Giulietti are scheduled to testify before the General Assembly's transportation committee next week, and Malloy said they've committed to frequently updating him on progress at the railroad.

Malloy said the railroad management has agreed to more frequent meetings with commuters, and has also promised there'll be an independent consultant brought in to review any large-scale construction plans that could potentially jeopardize power to the system. When a botched power cable replacement in New York state brought the whole system to a halt for days, Metro-North and Con Ed executives ended up blaming each other's operations. Malloy said the time for blame is over.

"This isn't about who can raise their voice the loudest," he said.

Copyright 2014 - The Hartford Courant

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