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Darien Advocate Reflects On Train Service On Anniversary Of Crash

Jim Cameron
Jim Cameron Photo Credit: File

DARIEN, Conn. -- Sunday marks the second anniversary of the shocking derailment and collision of two Metro-North trains on the Bridgeport-Fairfield border.

Though there were no deaths, 60 passengers were injured. This event marked the beginning of a serious effort to fix the aging rail system, retrain railroad employees and create a new culture of “safety first.”

Since then, commuters have been impacted by significantly slower trains, frequent delays and lingering doubts of just how safe their daily ride really is.

After the Bridgeport crash there was a series of other deadly accidents:

  • May 28, 2013 – Track foreman Robert Luden was killed by an oncoming train at West Haven when a trainee opened a track to service while crews were still working.
  • Dec. 1, 2013 – Four passengers were killed and 70 injured at Spuyten Duyvil when a train flies off the track at 70-plus mph on a 30 mph curve.
  • Feb. 4, 2015 – Seven were killed and dozens injured in grade-crossing accident at Valhalla, N.Y.

When Joseph Giulietti arrived as president of Metro-North in February 2014, he inherited a railroad in ruin. Decades of neglect had taken their toll on equipment and morale. To his credit (and the insistence of Gov. Dannel Malloy), Giulietti issued a “100 Day Plan” to get the railroad back “on track.”

On May 11, 2015, Giulietti testified before the Transportation Committee in Hartford and said that everything on his “100 Day Plan” had been done or was close to completion. I think Giulietti deserves a lot of credit for what he has accomplished. He has restored morale, instilled the culture of safety that seemed missing and started the railroad on the long, upward climb to restoring a state of “good repair.”

But this journey will take another three to four years, he told lawmakers. That is bad news but indicative of just how badly the railroad had been run in recent years.

Metro-North didn’t deteriorate overnight, nor will it be restored in a matter of months. Rebuilding the railroad while still operating hundreds of daily trains carrying 120,000 passengers is like changing the fan belt on a running automobile.

Train schedules have been lengthened. On-time performance is down. Commuters still tweet their gripes on an hourly basis. But slowly I think they are coming to understand that progress is being made.

Just because we haven’t had another derailment does not mean we are safe. Before the Bridgeport collision we didn’t know how unsafe things had become. And as Spuyten Duyvil (and perhaps last week’s Amtrak derailment) have shown us, human beings can still make mistakes that cost lives.

Until we have Positive Train Control on all our passenger trains, such mistakes may happen again. But even with a $967 million loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority won’t get PTC installed until well past the December 2015 deadline.

It is so telling that, on the same day as bodies were being pulled from the Amtrak wreckage, Congress voted to actually cut operating subsidies for the railroad from $1.4 to $1.13 billion. Compare that to China’s $128 billion in annual spending on its railroads.

Similarly, Hartford lawmakers must prioritize reinvestment in rail safety over any of Malloy’s $100 billion in other grandiose transportation plans for the state.

While Metro-North deserves credit for all it has accomplished over the past two years, especially in the area of improved communications, there are still problems that should be addressed:

  • Overcrowding: Despite having the largest fleet of cars in its history, many rush-hour trains are still standing room only.
  • Ticket collection: The railroad admits it loses millions of dollars in uncollected tickets each year but says that amount is less than it would cost to fully staff trains and collect all tickets. Watching passengers get a free ride because their tickets aren’t collected just angers those passengers who do pay their fares.
  • Quiet cars: The railroad fought the idea for a decade. Now the QuietCALMmute cars exist but are often not enforced by conductors, further frustrating passengers.
  • Branch lines: Service on the Waterbury and Danbury branches suffers frequent delays due to locomotive failures, resulting in missed connections and busing.

In summary, much has been done to improve the railroad in the past two years. I am very impressed with Metro-North President Giulietti’s candor and honesty and applaud him for his work to date. The Commuter Action Group was created to give voice to commuters’ complaints and we achieved that goal. Frankly, I hope Metro-North improves to the point that we are no longer needed. But until then, our advocacy continues.

Jim Cameron is author of the twice-a-month newspaper column/blog/podcast “Talking Transportation.” He also serves as an elected member of the Representative Town Meeting in Darien and is program director of the town’s government television, Darien TV79.

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