When irate Fairfield County legislators suggested earlier this winter that Connecticut should sever its relationship with Metro-North, state political leaders were silent and Transportation Commissioner James Redeker dismissed the idea as impractical.
But officials in Massachusetts had no such reluctance in dumping a rail operator that had dissatisfied them. When their contract with Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail came up for renewal in January, directors of the Massachusetts transportation department voted unanimously to boot the company in favor of a French contractor.
The contractor, Keolis, landed a roughly $2.6 billion, eight-year contract to run the 13 commuter lines that serve Boston's two major rail stations, Boston Magazine reported. That switch came after Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail held the contract for 10 years.
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Defenders of Metro-North point out major differences between the situations: Connecticut and Metro-North are in the midst of a long-term contract, and the Connecticut rail system is larger and far more complex than Boston's.
But neither argument satisfies Metro-North's critics, who have grown vastly in number — and level of outrage — during the railroad's recent run of back-to-back debacles, scandals and tragedies.
After three horrific accidents in less than a year that killed a veteran track worker and four passengers while injuring scores of people, Metro-North this winter came under scathing criticism from the Connecticut Congressional delegation and unprecedented oversight by the Federal Railroad Administration. The railroad management promised a thorough self-study to fix what was going wrong.
Even so, just six weeks after the most devastating crash in its 30-year history, the railroad managed to strand a train for two hours with no heat on a bitterly cold night, and then send a rescue train with defective heaters in some of its cars.
The following night, the nation's busiest commuter railroad was stopped dead when a technician doing routine maintenance at the control tower at Grand Central Terminal apparently disconnected a power plug, and nobody fixed it for two hours. More than 50 trains were stranded, and the evening commute became a shambles for tens of thousands of riders.
Last week,some legislators simply shook their heads after learning of the latest trouble: A trainee for one of the railroad's high-paid engineer's jobs was arrested after allegedly committing a sex crime against a half-asleep pregnant passenger on a train.
State Rep. Anthony Guerrera, co-chairman of the transportation committee, has called a bipartisan press conference for Feb. 3 to demand that the railroad take stronger measures to regain control of its operations.
State Sen. Toni Boucher, ranking member of the committee, has said that Connecticut should get tougher and treat Metro-North as a poorly performing contractor.
She wants state attorneys to review how and when Connecticut can use renewal clauses in the 60-year contract as a way to solicit other rail operators.
"Every day it seems like Metro-North has a problem," she said recently. "This poor track record quite frankly rises to a crisis situation. Incidents such as these can stop the regional economy in its tracks."
She and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal have both demanded a culture change in the railroad management. Metro-North leaders have for years allowed little public scrutiny. Critics say it's time for a new era of transparency and accountability.
When Boucher asked at a legislative meeting this winter about switching contractors, Redeker emphasized that the busy New Haven line is uncommonly complex.
It operates in two states, is owned by two separate entities, and carries Amtrak and freight trains as well as Metro-North passengers. Finding a company competent and prepared to undertake such a job wouldn't be feasible in a short term, he said.
Redeker also dismissed legislators' suggestions that the railroad shouldn't have abandoned a program aimed at finding misconduct. Redeker, a former New Jersey Transit executive, supported the railroad's argument that the undercover inspectors weren't working properly, and that regular managers could be trusted for oversight.
Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, countered that if the staff of a key operation isn't performing, the staffers should be fired or transferred but the operation should continue. Redeker and his aides, though, held fast in defending the decisions of Metro-North administrators, who they referred to as "our partners."
The following day, The New York Times reported that a Metropolitan Transportation Authority inspector's investigation had concluded that eight Metro-North crew foremen and acting foremen had violated rules, in some cases driving to other states on Metro-North time for apparently personal errands. Some track repair crews falsified time sheets, the investigation concluded.