Problems Facing Metro-North's New Haven Line Were Years in the Making

Riders on Metro-North's New Haven Line will wake up Monday to find their rush hour service on already overcrowded trains cut by 10 percent. Railroad officials are blaming bad weather for a backlog of repairs that has left them with too few train cars to meet the demands of regular service. But don't count on good service was once the wintry conditions pass.

On any given day this winter, almost half of its cars have been laid up because of damage from snow, ice and cold. But the line’s repair sheds are so small that workers have been setting up in the elements to fix trains broken by the elements. On top of those problems, 300 new cars, called M-8s, are indefinitely stuck in the testing phase.

MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said testing will only resume on the M-8s once the cold and snow has passed.

“We don’t want to sacrifice the new cars to the weather,” he said.

Even when winter abates, the backlog of repairs will have to be handled by repair shops that have been unable to supply enough working cars. For years, the line has routinely run trains with fewer cars than platforms can handle, leading to standing-room-only crushes during peak times.

Connecticut’s $866 million investment in the M-8 cars was supposed to have averted a crisis like this one. They were scheduled to be put into service in late 2009 but production problems meant they were only delivered at that time. The MTA, which runs Metro-North, began testing them with an eye toward having the M-8s carry commuters by late last year.

Unspecified technical glitches arose and that deadline was missed. Then came winter.

The roots of Monday’s cut in service stretch back even further. The MTA wanted to order new cars around 2000. By agreement, the authority pays 35% of the costs of operating the New Haven Line, from equipment purchases to operating expenses, while the state of Connecticut picks up the rest. But then-Governor John Rowland refused to make the investment.

“The new cars should have been ordered a decade ago, before the existing fleet broke down,” said Jim Cameron of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council. “The reason that didn’t happen is Governor Rowland didn’t want to spend the money.”

Cameron said the same problem similarly crippled New Haven Line service in the winter of 2004. As is happening now, packed trains carried angry commuters on a slimmed-down schedule. Jodi Rell, Connecticut’s new governor at that time, responded by placing the order for new train cars.

The move would’ve been in time to keep the railroad running capably this year, but only if the delivery had moved smoothly through a long timetable.

Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy has pledged to sort out that and other aspects of the fiasco. Jim Cameron of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council suggested he find first out why the M-8 testing had taken more than a year.

“What Malloy needs to do is get honest with commuters and get some straight answers out of the railroad as to why this testing problem is taking so long,” Cameron said. “That’s the best thing he can do–that and grab an ice scraper.”

For now, New Haven riders will have to grit their teeth and endure even worse conditions than the ones they’ve gotten used to. By contrast, riders on the Harlem Line and Long Island Railroad needn’t worry, for now, about a similar cascade of breakdowns because previous governors of New York upgraded their rolling stock in time. MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said no train car on those railroads is more than ten years old.

Connecticut riders will have a chance to confront their local lawmakers and railroad officials on January February 16 at a meeting that the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council is calling “Winter Crisis: Commuter Summit.” It will be held at 7 p.m. at the Stamford Government Center.