Even with safety concerns related to track conditions and other obstacles, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy challenged Metro-North Railroad on Friday to set higher goals for on-time performance and service quality in a new schedule planned for May.
In a letter from Malloy to Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti, the governor said the railroad was not adequately explaining why it was setting on-time performance goals under 95 percent even taking into account additional track maintenance and lower speed limits the railroad faces after a federal safety mandate in December.
Metro-North has been operating with speed restrictions in more than two dozen locations since a Federal Railroad Administration order in December.
In February, Giulietti reset the New Haven Line's annual on-time performance goal from 97.2 percent to 92 percent.
"I expect that the new schedule will reflect your commitment to deliver a comprehensive program of safe, reliable and fast service in Connecticut," Malloy wrote. "Indeed, Connecticut will not approve the new schedule without it."
Malloy said the railroad should be shaving more minutes off trip times that bloated in 2013 as the railroad grappled with intense commuter outcry over plummeting reliability stemming from track maintenance and repair efforts being expanded rapidly after two derailments and enhanced inspection procedures that identified flaws sooner than previous methods.
"From what I've been told, the schedule changes are adding minutes to train times and reducing the target for on-time performance," Malloy wrote. "We have not received an adequate explanation for either."
In 2013, the railroad was faced with two passenger train derailments; the first in Bridgeport in May when an M8 car derailed and struck another near Commerce Drive and Howard Avenue, injuring 76, and the second, a December over-speed derailment in the Spuyten Duyvil section of the Bronx that killed four people.
"Minimizing travel times is critical to all riders of the New Haven Line and fundamental to my economic development strategy for Connecticut," Malloy wrote. "Even with the speed restrictions imposed by the FRA to address safety goals, it is essential that the May schedule deliver the best possible travel times between Connecticut and New York."
Malloy's challenge comes as the railroad hopes to roll out the new timetable on May 11 to improve reliability, though the railway has emphasized the new speed restrictions make restoring earlier trip times impossible right now.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating five separate accidents at the railroad, including the two derailments, a third derailment of a CSX train last fall, and the deaths of two track workers, Robert Ludens and James Romansoff.
An analysis of FRA inspection records by Hearst Media Connecticut this month showed federal inspectors found more than 7,100 defects at Metro-North since 2003, including tracks, the safety of workers and passengers, signalization, alcohol and drug testing, and maintenance of locomotives.
A Metro-North response to the letter was not immediately available.
Malloy said the railroad should commit to providing half-hourly service for all off-peak periods and weekends between New Haven and Grand Central Terminal, an initiative funded in the railroad's operating subsidy which the governor hopes will increase ridership.
Speaking publicly at a recent Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, Senior Vice President of Operations for Metro-North John Kesich said the FRA's mandate to establish new speed restrictions and signal upgrades at curved sections and at moveable bridges of track shaped the new schedule.
"We had to modify our signal system for a maximum speed of 45 miles an hour in those locations," Kesich said. "Through the implementation, it added six or seven minutes long term to the running times on the New Haven Line."
Jim Cameron, head of the Commuter Action Group, said he was not surprised by Malloy's concern about the on-time performance standards but wondered why the issue was brought up now given Metro-North having announced it was planning the schedule back in February.
The request for enhanced off-peak and weekend service to Grand Central Terminal from New Haven is surprising because past DOT administrations have not prioritized that type of service as the best use of capacity, Cameron said.
"I thought it was very clear the reason they were coming up with a new timetable, and literally taking two months to do so, was not necessarily to run the trains faster, but change the timetable to something that was safe that would allow the railroad to run on paper the way they'd been running in reality."