Watchdog group grades Metro-North
Published 4:41 pm, Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Gaps in customer communication during service problems, delivery of the state's new rail cars and a need to expand parking are the top concerns for rail riders, according to an annual report released by the state's railroad watchdog group.
While Metro-North improved instant message communication efforts in 2011, whether the railroad is ready to provide better communication during major service problems remains untested, said Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council.
"We put communications first because we think that is the single most important issue, which was illustrated last winter and summer when there were problems," Cameron said. "The real test will be when there is a serious problem."
Concerns in 2011 were magnified by service problems such as a reduced schedule after equipment shortages caused by last winter's heavy snows and a July heat wave, Cameron said.
Metro-North revamped its communication policies and response protocols after a public backlash stemming from a July 22 incident in Westport when a train carrying 200 passengers became stuck in temperatures that rose to about 100 degrees.
A railroad review found a lack of communication significantly aggravated overheated passengers on the train, and led to initiatives such as retraining conductors to better communicate with customers during outages.
"We have been working consistently to improve communications," Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said.
The railroad is also making progress on updating response procedures it established with first responders in municipalities from Stamford to New Haven, Anders said.
The report said customer satisfaction also dipped after a series of software problems late in 2010 and a production error in early 2011 that halted production of the $1 billion fleet of new M-8 cars at a Lincoln, Neb., manufacturing plant.
Anders said the M-8 manufacturer, Kawasaki, is rolling the cars off the assembly line at a rate of 12 cars per month, and 70 of the 425 cars have been put into service.
"On weekdays 20 percent of New Haven Line trains are M-8s and on Saturdays 32 percent," Anders said.
Cameron said while delivery of the cars appears to be running smoothly, the council will continue to monitor the construction and performance of the cars.
"Once more of the cars are in service we'll see an improvement in on-time reliability and the reliability of the railroad in bad weather should improve," Cameron said. "We've heard lots of good response on the new cars but it is just a matter of getting them in service."
The report also mentions positive news including the opening of the New "Fairfield Metro" station with 1,400 new parking spaces, and Stamford's receipt of a $10.5 million federal grant to make improvements to the city's rail station.
Metro-North's decision to issue an official public Pledge to Customers' an idea championed by the council and state sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, will also give customers concrete standards by which to judge New Haven Line service, Cameron said.
"I believe this sort of pledge might be unprecedented," Cameron said of the nine-point pledge. "It's the first time Metro-North has written down somewhere what standards of service customers can expect and it's a major victory."
Metro-North and the Long Island railroads will distribute copies of the pledge on trains and at stations in the form of posters and fliers.
"Our customers deserve a pledge like this so that they can hold us to certain standards in service and satisfaction," Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said Monday. ". . . Good service is important, but customer communication is critical. Our job now will be to put this document into action and live up to the pledge."
As in previous reports, the council spotlighted the need for the DOT to redouble efforts to pursue parking expansion projects at new locations as well as state-owned lots along the New Haven Line.
An analysis of rail parking availability completed by the South Western Region Planning Agency in 2009, and updated this year, found the number of people seeking a parking permit at rail stations increased 16 percent between 2008 and 2010.
"It is a difficult issue because land values are so expensive in lower Fairfield County," said Timothy Beeble, a Bethel member of the council.
Another concern of commuters is the state's still unsettled plans to address the Stamford Transportation Center, which includes the need to replace a rundown 800-space parking structure that is structurally flawed, according to the report.
Two years ago, the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation requiring the DOT to find interim replacement parking before starting a project that would take the garage out of commission.
"It's not clear how the state plans to address that parking structure but whatever they do will make a mess for a couple of years," Cameron said.