After Metro-North Railroad and Consolidated Edison officials finished pointing fingers at each other for last month's massive power failure, a disappointed U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Monday the giant New York utility has to reimburse rail commuters.
After a rare U.S. Senate subcommittee field hearing in Bridgeport City Hall, Blumenthal said there are a variety of actions the state and commuters may take to force Con Ed to rebate Metro-North for $2 million in lost tickets. Otherwise, tens of thousands of commuters and the state Department of Transportation will have to pick up their own tabs.
"I am personally exploring some of the legal avenues that can be pursued and some of the moral suasion that we can bring to bear, but we're not done on the reimbursement issue," Blumenthal said after the nearly 2 1/2-hour meeting of Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee.
"I think there are potential legal causes of action here, if not by the state of Connecticut, then by Metro-North and potentially by customers of Metro-North who would have standing to pursue that kind of claim," Blumenthal said. "But clearly, the state of Connecticut is also in some sense a customer who would have, potentially, some cause of action."
Blumenthal made his comments after executives from Metro-North and Con Edison blamed each other for the fragile condition of the rail line last month when one power cable, called a feeder line, was out of service, and the second failed, shutting down regular daily service for a week and a half.
Howard Permut, president of the Metro-North Railroad, said Con Ed had taken the line out of service the week before the failure, so when the primary line became crippled in the early hours of Sept. 25, a critical eight-mile stretch of the railroad was powerless.
"Prior to taking the feeder off-line, Metro-North and Con Ed had many discussions of how to best accomplish the work," Permut said.
"We assessed the risk of only having one feeder in service," he said, adding that a similar procedure had been used in 2006 without incident.
Con Ed President Craig Ivey declined to impose any monetary responsibility for the malfunction on his shareholders and ratepayers because the work taking the backup electric line was ordered by Metro-North.
"We think it's unfair," Ivey told Blumenthal, who pressed the executive on the issue of paying for the lost commuter tickets.
"One way or the other, it was your equipment that failed," Blumenthal said during an exchange with Ivey.
"There is an obligation," Blumenthal said, noting that a failed cable was six years beyond its lifespan.
Blumenthal chastised both Metro-North and Con Ed for allowing decaying, aging infrastructure to shut down one of the busiest commuter railroads in the country, used in 125,000 daily trips. He said the incident underscored "much broader and deeper problems" in the Metro-North commuter railroad, including the May derailment on the Fairfield-Bridgeport border that injured 50 people.
Blumenthal said he was outraged by the power failure.
The fact-finding hearing focused on the 36-year-old cable operated by Con Ed as well as the Metro-North management that allowed the failure to occur.
Metro-North has allowed commuters with weekly and monthly tickets who lost trips in September to obtain credit on future trips. But much of that money comes from commuter fees and Connecticut's transportation budget. In fact, 65 percent of Connecticut service is paid by the state and commuters, while 35 percent is paid by New York.
Blumenthal and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said that since Con Ed is directly responsible for the power outage, it should be responsible for paying the costs. The line was back up in full service on Oct. 7, after Con Ed completed the installation of a new electric line.
Permut and others on two panels agreed that the larger issue facing the transportation industry, commuters, businesses and elected officials is the aging infrastructure and the need to plan ahead.
After the hearing, Blumenthal and Murphy told reporters they believe there is a bipartisan will in Congress to invest more money in a better rail-transit strategy.
But for the foreseeable future, riders will have to take their chances on the possibility of incidents closing the Northeast Corridor.