New Haven Line sees rider survey uptick
New Haven Line passengers gave Metro-North Railroad a solid B+ rating in a questionnaire, assigning improved grades for availability of seats, cleanliness of train interiors and other factors, in an annual survey released Monday.
Overall satisfaction on the New Haven Line rose from 81 percent to 88 percent in 2011, though it still trails satisfaction on the Hudson Line, which rose two points to 96 percent, and the Harlem Line which inched up one point to 97 percent.
Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, said the rebound is likely due to the improved experience of customers traveling in the New Haven Line's new M-8 cars, along with a natural bounce following a seven-point drop in 2011, when a harsh winter pummeled Connecticut with 78 inches of snow and knocked more than half of the state's weather-sensitive M-2, M-4 and M-6 cars out of service.
Riders gave the New Haven Line an overall approval rating of 88 percent in 2010.
"Some of last year's dip might have been attributable to the horrible winter of 2010-2011, when the trains weren't running and they cancelled service," Cameron said. "I really think the significant number of M-8s we have now has made a big difference."
The survey found 69 percent of New Haven Line riders were satisfied with communication during unplanned service breakdowns and disruptions, compared to 63 percent in 2011. Harlem Line riders were 82 percent satisfied with service information during disruptions; 83 percent of Hudson Line riders said they were satisfied.
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the railroad is continuing systemwide efforts to improve customer communications, including establishing a command center earlier this year in North White Plains to update schedule applications, such as Train Time, to reflect delays and send more frequent email alerts about service disruptions in a timely fashion.
The railroad is also planning a study of its communication infrastructure to consider necessary upgrades to modernize station public address equipment and other technologies to share information immediately.
"We are very, very focused on improving communications to our customers in every way we can, whether that is creating phone access to Train-Time and working to promote signing up for alerts," Anders said. "We've really heard our customers and are trying to improve the way they hear us."
Riders also gave Metro-North a better grade on the New Haven Line for on-time performance, with an 84 percent satisfaction rating, compared to 78 percent last year.
Through Monday, the New Haven Line's on-time performance for the year is 97 percent, compared to 95.2 percent last year through September. Cumulatively the New Haven, Hudson, and Harlem lines have an on-time performance rate of 97.2 percent.
Anders said after having encountered delays with manufacture and delivery of the M-8s, railroad officials expected a rebound in customer satisfaction as the new trains began providing a larger share of the line's service.
So far, 136 of 425 M-8s ordered by Connecticut are in passenger service, covering about 35 percent of weekday runs and 60 percent of service on Saturdays and Sundays, according to the state Department of Transportation.
"We expect that as more M-8s come on board at the rate of about 10 a month, we've seen that people are very happy with them," Anders said. "It's been a long wait, but they are finally coming, and if things stay the same, we expect our rating to go up next year again."
In the survey, 70 percent of New Haven Line riders also ranked the availability of train seats as satisfactory, compared to 61 percent in 2011. Only 46 percent were satisfied with the cleanliness of train restrooms, and 61 percent were satisfied with the condition of the train car interiors.
Cameron said the improved approval rates were especially impressive, given that the railroad had enacted a series of increases for the next seven years that will raise fares 19.25 percent.
"There are all kinds of things they deserve credit for trying to improve, and from the rider's point of view, there are more seats now, and the on-time performance has always been there," Cameron said. "They are adding service, and there are a lot of good things going on."
DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said the agency is pleased with the improved ratings, especially for the bolstered communications efforts.
"That is our top priority -- keeping commuters informed whether the news is good or not so good," he said. "Our customers rely on us for current information, and they deserve it. We will continue to work toward keeping customer satisfaction numbers moving in the right direction."