Metro-North RR makes 'pledge' on ridership standards
Published 10:50 am, Wednesday, December 28, 2011
After five months of wrangling, the state's commuter council and Department of Transportation finalized a customer service pledge last week to be displayed on trains and stations to inform riders of customer service and safety standards.
"While not perfect, this passenger pledge is an important precedent for Metro-North and the commuter council in codifying the service passengers should expect each time they ride the train," Connecticut Commuter Rail Council Chairman Jim Cameron said.
Before unanimously approving the document at its regular Wednesday meeting, rail council members eliminated or altered several clauses at the request of Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker, including one to provide refunds if weather-related problems prevent the railroad from running service.
The final nine-point document includes promises of a safe, reliable ride, accurate and timely updates about service delays and disruptions, clean restrooms and seating areas, and assurances to bring riders to the closest station during service shutdowns so they can seek other ways home during extended suspensions of service.
If a service suspension prevents a train from reaching a station for an indefinite period of time, the railroad pledges emergency personnel to provide medical assistance, provide water, and to provide timely information to onboard passengers will be a top priority.
Early next year the pledge will be displayed on board trains, at rail stations and in other ways, Metro-North President Howard Permut said Thursday.
"Metro-North worked closely with its partners in Connecticut to codify what has been our long-standing commitment to safety, reliability and excellent customer service," Permut said.
While unwilling to include blanket refunds during service suspensions as part of the pledge, Metro-North has agreed to waive its standard $10 transaction fee to provide refunds to customers redeeming single or round-trip tickets during service suspensions.
During a series of exchanges on the refund issue, Redeker said system-wide refunds or credits would add a massive administrative cost for Metro-North's that couldn't be justified, especially when service disruptions are due to weather.
"In my 35-year career in transit, I can only recall one instance in which a refund was given and in that instance it was not because of an act of God, but because the agency was clearly at fault," Redeker said.
Cameron asked Redeker how Connecticut Light & Power and cable providers manage to issue credit to customers for service outages, such as after Tropical Storm Irene, while the railroad couldn't.
"They have more customers than you and how can they do it?" Cameron said.
Redeker said other unlike cable and utility providers, state-run transit agencies, run at a deficit.
Even though the New Haven Line's farebox recovery ratio -- the amount of costs covered by passenger fares -- is the highest in the nation at 70 percent, Redeker said, refunds would require an additional appropriation from the legislature to pay for them.
"Tell me where is the money going to come from, because I don't have the money," Redeker said. "I can't tell what the financial ramifications of this will be so how can I approve it. I don't think it is a reasonable thing to expect."
The council first began working on a bill of rights for passengers in July with state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton who pushed the idea after more than 100 passengers were stranded on a sweltering Metro-North train in a July heat wave, when temperatures soared to triple-digits.
Boucher said Metro-North has made strides this year in increasing the frequency of e-mail and text updates to keep customers informed of service problems.
The pledge helps assure that basic expectations will be known by passengers when they have complaints about service, she said.
"Let's hope when this is put in place that they follow through," Boucher said. "After years of being treated as a commodity rather than as paying customers, passengers will be happy to be taken seriously."
Jeff Maron, a council member from Stamford, said he was worried the changes proposed by Redeker and Metro-North leaders weakened the agreement by not guaranteeing seats or providing refunds in the event of service problems, as airlines do.
"People are getting to the stage where they are upset with what they're getting," Maron said.
Ultimately Maron said he believed it was the right decision to accept the pledge as amended.
"We're never going to achieve perfection, but not accepting most of what you want because you didn't get all of what you want is not the adult thing to do," he said. "It's important to remember that they offer an excellent service 99.9 percent of the time."
Redeker said the document does a good job articulating what the DOT considers reasonable service standards for the riding public.
"This is about what customers deserve in terms of service, communications, reliability, comfort, and conduct by train personnel," Redeker said. " I appreciate the collaborative efforts by Metro-North, the rail commuter council, legislators and the team at the Connecticut Department of Transportation. I believe this is a document that will work."