WESTPORT — Officials from Metro-North Railroad were lambasted last night during a special meeting at Town Hall for failing to adequately communicate with passengers during the in Westport, in which about 300 people became trapped on a New Haven-bound train without air conditioning in the 100-plus degree heat for nearly an hour.
The incident took place on the hottest day so far this summer — when temperatures reached above the 100-degree mark. It was one of 13 incidents that occurred along the New Haven Line that day due to equipment failures (including sagging catenary wires) stemming from what Metro-North officials called “heat related” problems. More than 120 trains were delayed that day as a result.
“By far this was the worst experience I’ve ever gone through on Metro-North,” said longtime Metro-North rider Dot Crosby, of Stratford, who was on the disabled train. “That day there were warnings that children and pets should not be left in cars — yet we were left in the train cars for well over an hour — and the train conductors took no ownership over running the ‘ship’ if you will. They were yelling at people when they were trying to open the windows and doors — [when] they should have been instructing people to open the windows. They did absolutely nothing at all to help people.”
Crosby was one of numerous passengers who dialed 911 during the incident, because “no one was giving us any information.” Those calls came into Westport’s 911 answering center — however emergency responders were delayed in getting to the disabled train due to miscommunication with Metro-North officials.
Officials from the Westport Fire Department said in a statement following the incident that officials from the MTA at first told them there were no passengers on the train. In addition there was some confusion as to the train’s exact location. By the time Westport EMS located the stalled train, it had already started slowly rolling to the Green Farms Station on reserve power. Emergency responders finally met up with the passengers at the Greens Farms Station, where they distributed water and checked people for signs of heat exhaustion. Emergency responders noted that it was fortunate that no one was seriously hurt in the incident.
Emergency responders from Westport, along with state and local officials, to discuss the communications problems with emergency responders during the incident. As a result of that meeting, Metro-North has implemented measures to improve communications with first responders when similar incidents arise.
In addition detailing what went wrong during the July 22 incident — and what measures it will be taking to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Last night’s meeting mostly focused on communications with passengers. During the meeting, Metro-North officials admitted that more communication from the train crew probably would have prevented the passengers from dialing 911. Several commuters complained that there was only one vague announcement about what was happening during the 45 minutes the train was stalled — and some said the train crew was largely “invisible” as the incident played out.
Those who spoke expressed anger over how the crew handled the situation.
“I saw one of the conductors walk by without his shirt on, without his uniform on,” Crosby said. “I’m sure he took it off because he was afraid of people.”
“Metro-North is useless, they should be ashamed of themselves,” Crosby said. “And now they’re asking for fare increases — for what? For this great service we’re getting?”
“It’s just a shame the way everyone was treated that day,” Crosby added. “I hope that Metro-North learned something from this. We don’t deserve to be treated the way were that day.”
Longtime Metro-North customer and Fairfield resident Diane Lisi, who also was on the disabled train, said the lack of communication that occurred on July 22 is just one example of an overall problem Metro-North has in disseminating information to its customers.
“This communication issue with Metro-North is not just something that happened on July 22,” Lisi said, adding that communication has been lacking for years: “You cannot find a conductor who can give you reliable information,” she said.
She pointed out that in this age of cell phones and the Internet, conductors should be able to readily receive and disseminate information among passengers, especially in emergency situations.
“This is a situation that clearly Metro-North was not prepared to handle,” Lisi said. “We’re fortunate that July 22 did not have a much worse ending.”
The meeting was arranged by Metro-North and state Department of Transportation officials — at the behest of elected officials and the Metro North Rail Commuter Council — to give commuters a chance to voice their side of the story of what went wrong that day, and to gather suggestions for how to handle similar incidents in the future.
Present at the meeting were Metro-North Railroad President Howard Permut; DOT Acting Commissioner James P. Redeker; DOT Rail Administrator Eugene J. Colonese; Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff; State Sen. Toni Boucher; and State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, among others.
Jim Cameron, chairman of the CT Rail Commuter Council, blasted Permut for trying to blame the problem on the rail line’s aging infrastructure. He pointed out that although the aging infrastructure and sagging catenary lines were the underlying cause of what happened, that doesn’t excuse the lack of communication with customers.
“I think we’ve heard a lot tonight NOT about old catenaries and excuses about the old trains, but about a problem you can easily solve, and that’s a training issue with your conductors,” Cameron said. “Whether it’s the lack of ticket collection on the trains — or the use of the public address system by the conductors — you have serious training issues. I see nothing in the report you issued this week, which addresses those issues of communication and training. I saw nothing about the conductor who took off his uniform so that he wouldn’t be have to be bothered by passengers.”
In addition, Cameron said, “there was nothing in that report about the communications timeline that came out of your central office.”
“This train became disabled at 2:51 p.m. — but it took until 4:15 p.m., roughly an hour and 20 minutes after the train became disabled, for the first email alert to come out of Metro-North.”
That alert, he said, only referred to delays of up to 40 minutes “due to heat related incidents.”
“What is a ‘heat-related incident?’” Cameron asked rhetorically. “You need to be honest and candid with commuters. If there is a problem with the wires, then tell us there is a problem with the wires. I don’t know what a ‘heat related incident’ is — that tells me nothing. I don’t know if it is a commuter who fainted on a train or a problem with sagging wires.”
Cameron suggested that Metro-North look at improving its communications across the board — not just communications between train crews and passengers, but all communications — in the train stations, and on the Internet, through the Metro-North website.
“Clearly you haven’t learned anything,” Cameron said. “Yesterday there was a collision between a train and a car at Camp Avenue in Darien on the New Canaan spur. The first reports came in at 9:48 a.m., from the Darien Fire Department — and at 10:24 a.m. your alert said there was a disabled train between two stations on the New Canaan line. A disabled train? Does that mean the doors won’t open or the brakes locked? That tells me nothing. Telling me that the train collided with a car gives me info to decide, ‘should I try to catch the train? Should I go down to the main line?’”
Cameron said the email alerts that Metro-North sends are “an exercise in obfuscation – they tell commuters nothing.” He said the fact that there is a private service, called CleverCommute, that “scoops you on a regular basis — that customers rely on instead of your own emails — tells me that commuters have lost confidence in the railroad they ride every day.”
Even though the meeting was announced through the local news media, in all only about a dozen commuters showed up — and only about a half dozen spoke.
Lisi pointed out that most of the passengers who were onboard the train to New Haven were not from Westport — rather they were from towns further up the line.
“The reason there’s only a few people here tonight is because … nobody on that train lives in, or has connection with Westport,” she said. “So why you’re holding this in Westport is beyond me — except that the incident occurred in Westport. This meeting should have been held closer to the towns where the riders were from.”
Lisi said she had asked Metro-North officials if they would be willing to run a shuttle to transport people from the New Haven Train Station to Westport Town Hall so they could attend the meeting, but no one ever got back to her.
In addition Cameron said he had requested a “seat drop” (where flyers are placed on seats on the trains) to alert more commuters to the meeting, however he said his request was denied.
What’s more, Cameron and several other speakers pointed out that there was no announcement or information about the meeting posted to the home page of Metro-North’s website — rather its was posted on one of the site’s internal Web pages and was difficult for people to find.
Metro-North officials, in their report, have vowed to implement numerous measures to improve communications with passengers, including increasing the frequency of announcements using the PA systems on the trains, and sending more frequent email alerts when service problems arise.