Lawmakers want Metro-North contract put out to bid

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WILTON--Is Connecticut ready to consider replacing Metro-North with another rail operator? It’s an idea two Fairfield County lawmakers have floated with the legislature’s Transportation Committee in light of two years of mishaps, accidents and complaints about train service along the New Haven Line.

Both the state and Metro-North have the option to reopen contract talks every five years during its 60-year contract. Given that 2015 is on of those years, state senators Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) and Tony Hwang (R-Fairfield) believe, after hearing from their fed up constituents, now is the time to get the rail service back on track.

“It is a contract that many people feel is opaque and not current with today’s changing world,” said Boucher, whose office sits right next to the Wilton train station. She also says the language of the contract includes no performance measures Metro-North must adhere to. And, Connecticut pays Metro-North $70 million annually.

DOT Commissioner James Redeker confirmed the lack of standards in the contract, but adds that Metro-North has seen steady improvement under new leadership. He also says putting the contract out to bid would be a waste of time.

“There are no railroad operators the size scope of Metro-North, that could take this service and operate it other than Metro-North,” said Redeker. “There’s just none.” He says there’s no other company with the staffing and technical skill to match Metro-North, which operates the nation’s busiest commuter rail line.

Boucher, for one, does not believe that’s true. The largest private sector French public transport operator now runs the Massachusetts commuter rail system. Keolis Commuter Services won the contract last January and took over the train system last summer. Their bid of $2.68 billion over eight years was 6 percent lower than the former operator, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company.

Metro-North riders simply want accountability.

“If you’re serving that many people on a consistent basis, and some of these people go, you know, into the city to work every day and that’s their livelihood, and you’re gonna be late and delay and buses don’t come, that’s wrong,” said Derek Crofut, of Redding, who says he takes Metro-North into New York City at least twice per week.

One of the biggest complaints of rail customers is lack of consistent on-time service. Metro-North has an interesting way of defining on time.

“The first problem with on-time is that they (Metro-North) count on time as being less than six minutes late,” said John Hartwell, vice-chair of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, which oversees the daily operations of rail service in Connecticut and acts as commuter advocates.

Speed restrictions that are now in place have contributed to longer commutes and edgy passengers.

“I get serious conversation from people here in Westport, for example, saying they’re not sure they would’ve moved here if they had known that the train was gonna take so long,” said Hartwell.

“Connecticut cannot afford to lose any more people,” said Boucher. “It’s one of the top states for losing population rather than bringing them in.”

Hartwell agrees that there needs to be an open dialogue with Metro-North, but sides with Redeker in the belief that changing service providers would be very difficult especially since Metro-North is presently going through a heavy transition, with many employees now retiring.

“They’re losing senior people up and down the line, in all sorts of positions, who are being replaced by new people, who need to be trained and to get experience,” said Hartwell.