Joni Mitchell, in her famous lyric, sang: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone." This was my first thought when I read about the derailment of the Metro-North commuter train near Bridgeport on May 17. Would the interruption of service make us appreciate what we previously had, now that it was gone?
Sort of. The downside of the derailment was front-page news for days. Injuries. Inconvenience. Economic losses. The upside of previous service, of course, was largely taken for granted. Nothing I encountered came close to reporting how good our public transportation system was before the accident.
Metro-North is the busiest commuter rail line in the nation, with a record-breaking ridership of 83.8 million riders last year, in spite of the lingering effects of Sandy, last October's superstorm. Metro-North's New Haven Line, with 38.8 million riders in 2012, constitutes nearly half this total. Connecticut, which owns that line, deserves credit for making it run so well with a maintenance budget that's probably too low.
Divide the ridership of the New Haven Line by 365 days and you get 106,301 rides removed from the nearby road network, most of them in private vehicles with one passenger per car. This removal is a major success story for government-funded and managed public transportation in an otherwise car-dominated culture.
When the tracks went off-line between South Norwalk and New Haven, officials from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on down were quick to forecast the snarled commutes that would follow during the next week. As luck would have it, that was the one week I needed to take the train to Manhattan and back to attend my son's graduation. Yes, I was inconvenienced, along with everyone else who seemed to be taking it stoically.
However, nobody I spoke with or overheard talked about how good we had it until it was gone. So, I hereby congratulate Metro-North for doing such a good job, and Connecticut for investing so wisely. Their cooperation is a great example for other states to follow, and a great experience to learn from.
I was surprised to read Saturday of a lawsuit already filed against Metro-North — charging negligence —by one of the few seriously injured passengers in the accident.
Perhaps someone is to blame. We just don't know yet. This crash is under intense scrutiny. (Separate from an accident that killed a track worker this week.) The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation, and has shipped portions of the rail infrastructure to its labs in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Senate subcommittee on surface transportation, which includes Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, is looking into it. The state Department of Transportation and Metro-North are working together to find out what went wrong. Attention is focused on the "joint bars," which hold sections of track together. One in the vicinity of the derailment was found cracked and replaced in April, after routine maintenance. The investigation is ongoing.
Though I cannot comment on the merits of the lawsuit, I am surprised by its timing. And I can notice that it claims negligence against an organization that had inspected, maintained and repaired that section of the track during the months before the accident, and whose engineer on the westbound train was alert enough to slow his train down in time to help prevent deaths. Further, this claim of negligence is against an organization that is doing its best to find out if it was indeed negligent, doing so under the scrutiny of federal investigators and the news media.
In her song, Joni Mitchell lamented the exchange of a paradise for a parking lot. In her case, it was a few trees for another patch of asphalt. But the same basic argument works in reverse. In the case of the Metro-North, "putting up parking lots" helps unclog our roads, reduce energy use and enhance local communities.
Accidents happen. And I'm sorry for the injured. Otherwise, congratulations to everyone connected to the New Haven Line, whether riders, operators, owners or workers.
Robert M. Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.