Metro-North gets mixed reviews in latest report by commuter group
Published 9:51 am, Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Riders are offering some applause for the Metro-North Railroad, but they don't want to stand for it.
The annual report by the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council issued Monday gave the railroad high marks for better informing riders about delays, which was attributed in part to increased use of text and email alert systems.
But the report -- and riders on the rails during Monday evening's commute -- also continued to express a need for more seats and parking in return for fare hikes.
Mitch Fuchs, a council member from Fairfield, said New York-bound trains from New Haven are often crowded and he believes the railroad should be adding cars to many more trains. With a series of fare increases between 2012 and 2018 totaling 19 percent, riders deserve to have a seat, he said.
"I really think it is the biggest issue for everybody, and I think it is pretty easy to add two cars to a train if we have 150 new cars," Fuchs said. "With the fare increases continuing to come in, I don't want to hear about standing."
The improved marks for communication came in the wake of years of concerns expressed in the commuter council reports. Jim Cameron, chairman of the state-appointed watchdog group, said the updates "are more frequent and robust, providing more detail."
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the flow of updates improved after the railroad moved its customer communication and information hub to a White Plains, N.Y., facility in April.
The railroad plans to add station display boards in Stamford by early 2014 that show the real-time progress of trains in the upper waiting room and along the tracks, placing about 10 on each platform, Anders said. Stamford is the busiest stop on the line after Grand Central Terminal.
The annual report by the council, issued Monday, also calls for the state Department of Transportation and Metro-North to spend revenue from consecutive 5¼ percent fare increases in 2013 and 2014 on the railroad to expand service or for equipment.
Cameron said the council is working with state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, on a bill to restrict revenue from rail and bus fare increases to being used to support service, to prevent the money being appropriated for non-transportation uses.
"It's one thing to increase the fares by 2 or 3 percent but when they start increasing, 5, 7 or 10 percent, they start outstripping the pace of inflation," said David Hendricks, a Stamford member of the council. "We like to see rail fare increases invested in carrying capacity improvements and specifically to see more service to secondary and smaller stations in off-peak hours and more cars at major stops at peak hours."
The council also wants the railroad to remain vigilant in expanding the number of cars quickly when crowded conditions are reported.
Sabrina Duk, who lives in Hamden, takes the train daily from New Haven or Milford to Fairfield for her job as a project engineer. She said she'd like to see more of any type of car during the morning run.
"By the time the train reaches Bridgeport, people are standing," she said.
Jackie Almeida lives in Fairfield and travels to her job in a library in New York City at least three times a week. Almeida recently moved back to Fairfield from Colorado "where everything is cheaper."
She likes the new trains but said the old cars are often "dirty and the bathrooms are awful."
She said she would like to see more of the new cars to make the ride more comfortable. But she said all of the Metro-North employees are "very nice."
Anthony Davis, 29, of Bridgeport, takes the train five times a week from Bridgeport to his job at Fabricare, a dry cleaner in the Fairfield train station. He hears people complaining every day about Metro-North.
"They tell me how crowded the trains are, that more cars are needed on the evening trains, that more new cars are needed," Davis said. "When I get on at night, I have to stand up in a bar car or near the doors. That's not fair."
On a regular basis, Metro-North conducts passenger counts on commuter trains to determine if seating is scarce and adds cars if seats on a weekday train are found to be 95 percent full on an ongoing basis.
The railroad also will conduct spot counts when it receives reports of extreme crowding, but currently no trains exceed that standard, Anders said.
As in previous years, the council highlighted the need for the DOT to expand parking at stations along the New Haven Line.
The report also reiterated the council's concerns about a pending plan to demolish an older section of the Stamford rail parking garage and its 727 spaces and warned against any plan that would move commuter parking from its current location next to the tracks.
After heavy criticism by commuters and local officials at a hearing in the fall and a request for greater input into selecting a proposal to redevelop the station, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy appointed an advisory council of five people to offer guidance in selecting a plan that would meet commuter needs.
"I still think people who use the Stamford station don't know what is going to happen here, and when they find out, they are going to go nuts," Cameron said.
State Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker said the DOT is evaluating the proposals based on whether they improve the ease of access for all who use the station, not just parkers, but pedestrians coming from nearby developments and those who arrive by bus.
Redeker said the DOT intends to select a developer by the end of January.
"We're committed to delivering a better experience and ensure that we do that in a way that nobody will be unhappy about," Redeker said.
Cameron said the council also wants to press the issue of granting refunds to monthly ticket holders who have no service or substitute busing when the line shuts down due to bad weather, as it was on the Danbury and Waterbury lines for six days following the recovery from Superstorm Sandy.
Redeker said blanket or branchwide refunds for riders due to weather-related service disruptions is an unwieldy and costly concept that wouldn't be workable.
"How do you possibly track that and decide which group deserves a refund more than another?" Redeker said. "What incidents do I pay for? Does Hurricane Sandy rise to the level of an incident I pay for, and is it something that the railroad did something to cause? And do I raise fares to pay for those refunds?"
Catherine Perez, of Danbury, who moved from New York City six months ago and commutes to work every day, said riders should get refunds for service disruptions and that more cars are needed on peak hour trains.
"Yes, (they should add more cars)," she said. "I can usually get a seat from Stamford to Danbury, but from Harlem to Stamford, I always have to stand up."
Staff writers Michael P. Mayko and John Pirro contributed to this report.