RR officials promise changes on track after Westport meltdown
Updated 5:12 pm, Thursday, August 25, 2011
A Tuesday open letter and report from Metro-North Railroad promised more specific training for New Haven Line train conductors on guidelines for communicating with customers during train breakdowns and other scenarios.
At the same time, state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, has proposed the state Department of Transportation codify a Passengers' Bill of Rights that would include standard expectations for Metro-North, including clean rail cars with working restrooms, refunds for service disruptions and cancellations, and a streamlined system for lodging complaints.
Metro-North President Howard Permut and state Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker said many of Boucher's suggestions are addressed by recommendations of the report, which includes feedback from customers at last week's Westport forum on the July 22 service problems.
"We're reviewing everything we do in the hot weather and in the winter," Permut said. "At the hearing I certainly heard what the people said and the depth of their feelings and the extent to which issues of communication got raised."
Permut, Boucher, and Redeker all said changes they are suggesting stem from continuing efforts to address the July problems, which sparked public debate about whether the railroad had adequate procedures to handle emergencies.
On July 22, more than 200 passengers were stuck on a disabled train between the Westport and Green's Farms stations for more than 53 minutes with no power or air conditioning.
Passengers on the train said conductors provided very little information about the likely duration of the breakdown or when they would be rescued as temperatures in the sealed cars spiked to more than 100 degrees.
"The problems of July 22 became a kind of last straw and all the problems were magnified on that moment," Boucher said. "It brought it all to a head and all the problems of the past essentially came home to roost."
Redeker said some of Boucher's suggested changes might be difficult to pursue, noting that Metro-North already has a process to handle customer requests for fare refunds on complaints about service problems or other subpar conditions on trains.
There is no system that would allow the railroad to verify legitimate refund requests based on ticket stubs, leaving it vulnerable to fraudulent refunds claims, Redeker said.
"My experience in my career, including 30 years at N.J. Transit, is that refunds were only granted in one extraordinary circumstance and are done in a broad sense very rarely," he said.
Boucher said she hoped her proposal will have an effect similar to the so-called Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, which supporters hope to get passed into federal law to compel airlines to provide certain customer services to passengers during extended tarmac delays and other problems.
Boucher said she feels the Airline Bill of Rights, and the threat of it becoming law, has prompted airlines to be more solicitous during service problems.
Boucher said the DOT should seek more rigorous oversight and accountability from Metro-North in light of ongoing hearings to seek a 16.4 percent fare increase, despite a winter service crisis last year that knocked up to half the railway's cars out of service at various times, resulting in reduced service and overpacked trains.
"This list needs to be part of the discussion if Connecticut is planning to increase its fares," Boucher said. "If Metro-North tickets are going to cost more, Connecticut should be negotiating something in return from its passengers."
Boucher's bill calls for the DOT and Metro-North to arrange for the rapid arrival of alternate transportation after train breakdowns, for water and first aid kits on board trains, and for conductors to receive regular refresher training on safety procedures and actions to be taken to maximize passenger comfort and well-being during disasters.
"I think the time is right for something like this, because I feel the message has to definitely go to Metro-North through the DOT that there are certain expectations," Boucher said. "As legislators, our job is not to change the functioning of these organizations, but we can relate the needs and concerns of the customers."
Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman Jim Cameron said the council will discuss a list of basic passenger rights this week, but said it might want to take additional time to conduct a wider outreach effort to gather service ideas from commuters.
Cameron said the joint operating agreement between Metro-North and the State of Connecticut doesn't describe minimal service standards or lay out a process by which the DOT would judge Metro-North's performance.
"Metro-North does not have any criteria it must achieve as a vendor to the DOT," Cameron said. "The joint operating agreement has not been reopened or renegotiated at any point to lay out these types of passenger expectations so Connecticut can say, `Here, you haven't done what you're supposed to do.' "