Two Years after Bridgeport Train Derailment: What Have We Learned?

james cameron

James Cameron addressing the Retired Men’s Association. Credit: Leslie Yager

The following statement is from Jim Cameron, for 20+ years an advocate for Connecticut rail commuters on Metro-North. Cameron served 19 years on the CT Metro-North Commuter Council, four as its Chairman. In 2014 he created a new, independent body, the Commuter Action Group:

“This Sunday, May 17th, marks the second anniversary of the derailment and collision of two Metro-North trains in Bridgeport. Though there were no deaths, 60 passengers were injured. This event marked the beginning of a serious effort to fix our aging rails, re-train railroad employees and create a new culture of “Safety First”.

Since then, commuters have been impacted by significantly slower trains, frequent delays and lingering doubts of just how safe their daily ride really is.

THE “TRACK RECORD” OF SAFETY

After the Bridgeport crash there was a series of other deadly accidents:

  • May 28, 2013 – Track foreman Robert Luden was killed by an on-coming train at West Haven when a trainee opened a track to service while crews were still working.
  • *December 1, 2013 – Four passengers were killed and 70 injured at Spuyten Duyvil when a train flies off the track at 70+ mph on a 30 mph curve.
  • February 4, 2015 – Seven were killed and dozens injured in grade-crossing accident at Valhalla NY.

NEW MANAGEMENT TAKES OVER

When Joseph Giulietti arrived as President of Metro-North in February 2014, he inherited a railroad in ruin. Decades of neglect had taken their toll on equipment and morale. To his credit (and the insistence of Governor Malloy), Giulietti issued a “100 Day Plan” to get the railroad back “on track”.

On Monday of this week, May 11 2015, Metro-North President Giulietti testified before the Transportation Committee in Hartford and said that everything on his “100 Day Plan” had been done or was close to completion.

I think Mr. Giulietti deserves a lot of credit for what he has accomplished. He has restored morale, instilled the culture of safety that seemed missing and started the railroad on the long, upward climb to restoring a state of “good repair”.

But this journey will take another three to four years, he told lawmakers. That is bad news but indicative of just how badly the railroad had been run in recent years.

COMMUTERS MUST BE PATIENT:

Metro-North didn’t deteriorate overnight, nor will it be restored in a matter of months. Rebuilding the railroad while still operating hundreds of daily trains carrying 120,000 passengers is like changing the fan belt on a running automobile.

Train schedules have been lengthened. On-time performance is down. Commuters still tweet their gripes on an hourly basis. But slowly I think they are coming to understand that progress is being made.

BUT… ARE WE SAFE?

Just because we haven’t had another derailment does not mean we are safe.

Before the Bridgeport collision we didn’t know how unsafe things had become. And as Spuyten Duyvil (and perhaps this week’s Amtrak derailment) have shown us, human beings can still make mistakes that cost lives.

Until we have Positive Train Control (PTC) on all our passenger trains, such mistakes may happen again. But even with a $967 million loan from the FRA, the MTA won’t get PTC installed until well past the December 2015 deadline.

SAFETY REQUIRES MONEY

It is so telling that, on the same day as bodies were being pulled from the Amtrak wreckage, Congress voted to actually cut operating subsidies for the railroad from $1.4 to $1.13 billion. Compare that to China’s $128 billion in annual spending on its railroads. Similarly, Hartford lawmakers must prioritize re-investment in rail safety over any of Governor Malloy’s $100 billion in other grandiose transportation plans for the state.

PROBLEMS PERSIST:

While Metro-North deserves credit for all it has accomplished over the past two years, especially in the area of improved communications, there are still problems that should be addressed:

Over-crowding: Despite having the largest fleet of cars in its history, many rush-hour trains are still standing room only.

Ticket-Collection: The railroad admits it loses millions of dollars in uncollected tickets each year, but says that amount is less than it would cost to fully staff trains and collect all tickets. Watching passengers get a free ride because their tickets aren’t collected just angers those passengers who do pay their fares.

Quiet Cars: The railroad fought the idea for a decade. Now the QuietCALMmute cars exist but are often not enforced by conductors, further frustrating passengers.

Branch Lines: Service on the Waterbury and Danbury branches suffers frequent delays due to locomotive failures, resulting in missed connections and bussing.

In summary, much has been done to improve the railroad in the past two years. I am very impressed with MNRR President Giulietti’s candor and honesty and applaud him for his work to date.

The Commuter Action Group was created to give voice to commuters’ complaints and we achieved that goal. Frankly, I hope Metro-North improves to the point that we are no longer needed. But until then, our advocacy continues.

JIM CAMERON is author of the twice-a-month newspaper column / blog / podcast “Talking Transportation.” He also serves as an elected member of the Representative Town Meeting in Darien and is Program Director of the town’s government television, Darien TV79.

  • Hey Jim, we share the same last name! This is a good article and of course it also comes now with the most recent derailment in PA. It’s extremely important to maintain the infrastructure. I think MetroNorth has done a lot to improve the experience but there is still room for more improvements.

  • Northeast corridor is huge money maker for public rail system.
    We fund (proudly) many especially rural service lines.
    Why not put operations up to bid etc. ?