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Metro-North RR service still limited, but temporary fix could help

Westport News
Published 6:23 am, Saturday, September 28, 2013
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At the end of a stressful week for thousands of Connecticut commuters, Metro-North Railroad officials said Friday the railroad expects to provide reduced service on the New Haven Line into early next week.

Here is the latest on weekend rail service: http://bit.ly/S5Cxrf

Meanwhile, Metro-North and utility company officials plan to throw the switch Saturday morning on a jury-rigged system that would provide enough power for some electric trains to pass through a section of track knocked out earlier this week after a 138,000-volt feeder cable failed. The mishap brought train service on the nation's second-busiest rail line to a virtual standstill.

Although there is hope for at least a temporary fix, several of Connecticut's political leaders continue to insist the railroad work faster to bring service back to normal.

Over the past three days, Con Edison crews have worked feverishly to install three heavy-duty transformers near the Harrison, N.Y., station that will draw power from the local neighborhood and convert it for use by the railroad.

"What we've sought to do is almost build another substation overnight," Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee said Friday. "The idea is to get power that Metro-North can use as quickly as possible."

That power will replace what was lost when a large feeder cable for the railroad's electricity gave out early Wednesday in Mount Vernon, N.Y., setting off three days of travel chaos.

The temporary system will provide less than 10 percent of the normal power to the line, but Metro-North believes that should be enough to get at least one electric train through the affected area every 15 minutes. Officials said they will have an idea if the fix is working by Sunday night.

For the weekend, there will be hourly train service on the New Haven Line between New Haven and Stamford. Diesel trains will run local and express service between Stamford and Grand Central Terminal.

There will be limited train service on the Danbury and New Canaan branches and substitute bus service on the Waterbury branch. No bikes will be allowed on New Haven Line trains, including those going to the Westchester Triathlon.

Officials from both the railroad and the power company say their employees are working around the clock. But some Connecticut officials insist that's not enough.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Friday he wants to convene a congressional hearing in early October to look into how the power failure and delays happened.

Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, told Hearst Connecticut Newspapers he wants to question Metro-North and Con Edison officials about what caused the power failure, and why they didn't have a backup system in place more quickly.

"We'll need to see how effective the temporary improvements are," Blumenthal said. "But a permanent solution is absolutely necessary so that this kind of disruption is avoided in the future. The delays that have been caused are simply inexcusable and intolerable."

He said the electrical problems and resulting delays on both Metro-North and Amtrak have affected the entire Northeastern economy, prompting questions from the congressional delegations of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

"There's very widespread interest and concern, because this could happen anywhere," said Blumenthal.

Meanwhile, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said tens of thousands of Connecticut residents should get reimbursed for trips they paid for, but won't be able to use before their monthly tickets expire next week.

The Democratic governor said it doesn't make sense for individual riders to sue over the loss of trips, but the state can represent them.

"I have told Metro-North and the MTA in no uncertain terms that I expect them to produce a plan to compensate Connecticut riders for the lack of service," Malloy said during a news conference. "I am more than willing to put the full power of the state of Connecticut behind that demand. This is not a weather condition. It is something beyond what we normally call an act of God, and I expect our ticket holders to be compensated."

Commutes between Stamford and New York City might start to look normal in early to mid-October.

McGee, the Con Edison spokesman, said that's when the power company believes it will have reconnected another 138,000-volt line in Mount Vernon that was disconnected earlier this year for an upgrade project. He said the company will also need more time to check and repair the backup feeder line that was damaged in Wednesday's power failure.

Many New Haven Line riders heeded the advice of officials who urged them to carpool or telecommute this week. Friday's ridership was similar to Thursday's when the number of New Haven Line riders using Metro-North dropped to around 19,000, roughly half the normal ridership during a regular weekday rush hour.

About 5,800 riders took the Harlem Line, or about 25 percent higher than normal, according to Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders. Another 2,100 riders took Metro-North's bus shuttle from Rye to White Plains in New York to take Harlem Line trains, Anders said.

It's unclear whether commuters can stick to those new habits for the full two to three weeks -- or even, if those changes will be enough to prevent major congestion on the state's highways.

Commuters who did take Metro-North on Friday reported that stations and train cars on some parts of the line were far less crowded than usual. In the crowded cars, travelers said riders and Metro-North staff were trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

Some travelers who would have normally been riding those trains took to the state's roads instead. The increased volume added to the usual sluggishness of Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway.

Although Malloy has ordered routine road maintenance suspended in lower Fairfield County until the Metro-North problems are fixed, cars were backed up for more than 15 miles during the usual rush hours this week.

That congestion could thicken Monday as workers who telecommuted or stayed home Friday return to the office in droves.