January 31, 2004
It's Cold and Snowy and the Train Is Late. Why? It's Cold and Snowy.
By LISA W. FODERARO
WHITE PLAINS, Jan. 30 - Robert Sullivan, a recent law school graduate who has been commuting to New York City for job interviews, bounded off the 3:22 p.m. Metro-North train and into the frigid dusk.
As eager as he is to work in New York City, Mr. Sullivan, has grown anxious about the trip there and back. The 26-year-old Pace Law School graduate was just one of many passengers lamenting one of the worst stretches of train service in recent memory. "There's clearly something wrong with the train cars," he said, ticking off a list of recent delays and breakdowns. "The snow is one thing, but the cold? I don't see how that should affect the train schedule."
The wintry wallop has crippled Metro-North's fleet of 800 aging electric cars. Copious amounts of snow and below-normal temperatures have kept the snow powdery, and it tends to get sucked into the antiquated motors where it destroys the components. So commuters were fuming to hear Friday that a day earlier, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had lambasted the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for approving a new order of snow-resistant trains for Metro-North instead of more mass transit for underserved city residents.
On Friday, 195 of its cars were out of service, and during the morning rush, 48 trains arrived late in Grand Central Terminal.
"Once you start taking away train cars, you have to combine trains, cancel trains and bypass certain stations because the trains are too full," said Daniel Brucker, a Metro-North spokesman.
Metro-North says there is no way to retrofit its cars or to prepare for severe winter weather with its current fleet, and help will not come until early March, just as the worst of the season is ending. That is when 182 new M-7 electric trains are to be delivered, and the cars on those trains have proven impervious to the snow, Mr. Brucker said. The M.T.A. voted on Thursday to expand its capital budget by $231 million, essentially accelerating an order for 120 more M-7 cars for Metro-North.
The M.T.A. chairman Peter S. Kalikow said in a statement on Thursday that a "similar acceleration was taken in 1999" on behalf of New York City to buy additional subway cars.
The Long Island Rail Road, which has 226 of the new cars and 450 more on the way over the next several years, says they have run like a dream in the snow. Brian P. Dolan, an L.I.R.R. spokesman, pointed out that the average distance between breakdowns for M-7's is 209,000 miles, compared to the 38,000 miles of the older M-1's.
But the Long Island Rail Road has certainly had its own trials. In fact, Friday was the worst day yet, even though the skies were clear. There were 152 cars out of service - the highest number so far this winter - and of the 146 trains scheduled for the morning rush, 106 were late. The problems came largely because of a broken rail on the main line in Floral Park, Mr. Dolan said. But the railroad's older electric cars have also suffered from the powdery snow.
On the whole, Metro-North seems a bit more hobbled by the blast of winter this month. Its worst day this season in terms of sidelined train cars came last week, with 217 cars in the repair shop. The 152 disabled cars L.I.R.R. reported on Friday, by contrast, come from a larger fleet of 946 electric cars.
In the meantime, Metro-North passengers have had to put up with crowded cars, canceled trains and platforms of people left hanging as fully occupied trains whizzed past.
Things did not go as planned Thursday night for Metro-North's 6:54 Harlem line train. Commuters huddled in irritation at Grand Central Terminal as monitors showed a stream of delayed and canceled trains. Finally the departure gate was posted about 10 minutes after the train was supposed to leave. And it was combined with the 6:59, which meant that the train was packed like a rush-hour subway.
"This winter seems to be quite a bit worse in terms of service," said Andrew Gold, a lawyer in Chappaqua who rode that train, getting home at 8:20, instead of 7:45. "Usually when you get a snow day, it's bad for that day, but I've never seen it where it's been consistently bad for two weeks."In its defense, Metro-North says that despite its trains, most of which are at least 30 years old, the annual on-time rate is an impressive 97 percent. Even the recent run of frosty weather has not pushed that down to a flunking level.
For the week ending Jan. 25, for instance, the systemwide on-time performance rate was 90.6 percent, said Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman. And not every rider had harsh words for the railroad. Waiting at the Glenwood station Friday, James Peterson, a manager for Con Edison, said: "In the some 20-odd years I've been riding it you can set your clock by it."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company