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Cold weather, cold shoulders plague Metro-North

Updated 10:46 am, Monday, January 27, 2014

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On the heels of a frigid weekend and disastrous rail breakdowns that left riders stranded for hours last week, berated Metro-North officials are starting to feel like local commuters.

Frustrated and cranky.

"We can't do a damn thing about the cold weather," an exasperated Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said Sunday. "We are still going to have cold weather, and we are still going to have cold-weather delays."

After freezing temperatures overnight Monday, winter's chill continues to be a threat, although not like it was when the mercury plunged into the single digits recently.

"Who knows what is going to happen as the cold weather continues?" commuter advocate Jim Cameron said Sunday. "Anyone who commutes regularly on Metro-North knows they should assume the worst and hope for the best, and keep checking for updates."

Although Monday morning's rush hour is expected to be normal, officials said, the aftershocks of two service disruptions last week -- including one that affected the New Haven, Harlem and Hudson lines for hours -- have left Metro-North riders bitter and skeptical.

Last Wednesday, more than 200 passengers were stuck in the cold for two hours near Westport. A day later, the system-wide shutdown isolated thousands of riders in Connecticut and New York for another two hours. Rail officials blamed that service disruption on poor decision-making.

When Anders was asked about Metro-North testing its computer-based electrical system during the evening rush Thursday, she responded: "Are we going to fire the (expletive) electrician? I'm sure the appropriate disciplinary action has been taken."

Maybe so, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions for this beleaguered commuter railroad.

For example, what quality-control improvements can Metro-North make right away? What cultural and policy changes can be enacted quickly?

Cameron, who has often criticized the railroad and those who manage it, is somewhat sympathetic to Metro-North's plight.

"It appears Margie's a little on edge," he said Sunday. "Things seemed to go from bad to worse."

On the plus side, Cameron said, he thinks Metro-North has tried hard to provide as much service as they can considering the recent weather conditions.

"They are doing better this year than previous years because of the new (M8) cars," he said. "In previous years, (Metro-North) just about shut down in bad weather."

Last Thursday's electrical test, meanwhile, stranded riders from about 7:45 to 9:45 p.m. Trains were stopped on the Danbury branch line at the Branchville, Redding and Bethel stations until 12:25 Friday morning.

"Metro-North customers deserve better, and I extend my sincere apology to all of them," MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast said later. "I have directed Metro-North to bring in an independent consultant to examine how and why these mistakes were made, and to recommend any necessary changes to operating procedures to ensure nothing like this ever happens again."

Last Wednesday, a Metro-North train broke down near the Greens Farms section of Westport when 100-year-old overhead wires became brittle in the extreme cold and snapped.

The breakdown was in the same area where a Metro-North train was stranded in July 2011 because of extreme heat, said John Hartwell, vice chairman of an advocacy group, the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. Passengers, sweltering in cars with no air conditioning, removed emergency windows and fled the train to walk along the tracks.

dtepfer@ctpost.com; 203-330-6308; http://twitter.com/dantepfer