By John Christoffersen
As published in the Sunday edition of the Record Journal on August 21, 2011
NEW HAVEN — After passengers became stuck in a disabled train with no air conditioning in stifling heat last month on the nation’s busiest rail line, Metro-North Railroad pointed to a familiar culprit hanging around for a century.
Metro-North said the severe troubles on July 22 that led desperate passengers to call 911, remove emergency windows and even flee the train to walk along the railroad were caused by overhead wires that power the trains. Portions of the catenary system date to 1914 and are prone to failure in extreme heat when wires sag and become tangled in mechanical arms on top of the train cars.
Metro-North promised this week to work with the Connecticut Department of Transportation to replace the wires and other aging infrastructure “as expeditiously as possible.” Connecticut began replacing the wires in 1996 and the project is about 60 percent done but is not expected to be finished until 2015. “This system is decades past its useful life and the fragile condition of the system leads to regular failures, significantly impacting service reliability,” the railroad wrote in a report of an investigation into last month’s troubles.
The overhead wires are responsible for about 8 percent of delays on the New Haven line, Metro-North said. With nearly 400 trains operating on the line daily and Metro-North carrying 37 million people annually, train officials said it’s challenging to make improvements.
New York has already replaced its catenary system and has not experienced failures, according to the report. Metro-North noted that new train cars are arriving in Connecticut and promised to improve its emergency response when trains are disabled.
“It is important to note, however, that these actions cannot overcome years of disinvestment in infrastructure and equipment,” the report stated.
Gene Colonese, railroad administrator for DOT, said the original goal was to finish the project by 2010 but it proved more complicated. He said officials recently decided to focus more on upgrades to the wires rather than railroad bridges, but still doesn’t expect to finish the work before 2015.
The real issue was Metro-North’s emergency response and failure to communicate, said Jim Cameron, who heads up the rail commuter council. Downed wires are a common cause of major delays, but DOT projects are always delayed and even new wires can be pulled down by old train cars, he said.
A new fleet of train cars has been slowly arriving, but Cameron said it’s been delayed more than a year.
“These are all excuses Metro-North can use, none of which deal with the fundamental issues of their personnel and their incompetence and their lack of communication when something happens,” Cameron said. “Passengers were that desperate that they felt the call to 911 was going to be necessary to save their lives.”
Frank K. Darmstadt, a 47year-old New Jersey resident who was on the train to visit his parents, said passengers sat in the train for about 45 minutes in Westport with little communication by Metro-North. Passengers begged for water and began opening emergency windows for air, he said.
“People were on the verge of passing out,” Darmstadt said, noting there were pregnant and elderly passengers. “There was a sense of nobody knew what the heck was going on and nobody knew what to do in this emergency type of situation.”
Ron Kovis, a 53-year-old graphic artist from Fairfield who was on the train when it broke down in Westport, said it felt like the train was well over 100 degrees. He said passengers pleaded with train personnel to open the doors, an elderly man next to him was struggling and two women managed to get off the train and were walking alongside it. “It was very claustrophobic and extremely hot,” Kovis said. “I couldn’t believe how hot it was.”
Metro-North apologized and promised to make more frequent announcements and enact other reforms, including stepped up coordination with local first responders.
Cameron said his group has tried unsuccessfully for years to get Metro-North to improve its communications.
Kovis said he wasn’t surprised to hear Metro-North blame the catenary system.
“It seems like most of the time when we have problems it’s related to the overhead wires,” he said. “It seems like it’s taken forever.”
Kovis said commuters are also frustrated with the slow arrival of the new trains, adding “probably the richest area in the country and I think we probably have the worst train system in the country. There’s just something wrong with that.”