WESTPORT, Conn. — Metro-North Railroad was again on the hot seat after 200 passengers were stuck on a disabled train with no heat for two hours in Westport on Wednesday night, when outside temperatures were in the single digits.
State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26th District, and CT Commuter Rail Vice Chairman John Hartwell questioned how well the railroad handled the incident.
“I am once again renewing my call on the governor and the commissioner of the State Department of Transportation to request an oversight board be put in place to monitor Metro-North’s procedures to address problems,” said Boucher, whose district includes Westport.
“It seems as though our commuters are being tested on a weekly basis,” Boucher added. “When will they feel safe again on this rail line?”
Wednesday’s incident began at 8:51 p.m., when an eastbound train came to a stop between the Greens Farms and Westport train stations. Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the train became disabled because an old, fragile overhead wire broke in the extreme cold.
Making matters worse, the rescue train dispatched from New Haven became delayed when a switch mechanism failed, preventing the rescue train from coming up on the track alongside the disabled train for a side-by-side evacuation. The switch failure, Anders said, was also caused by cold.
“This Metro-North maintenance issue doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” Boucher said. “A downed wire due to weather is one thing, but then a mechanical switch problem on top of it is disconcerting.”
The switch failure occurred at 9:50 p.m. not far from the disabled train, Anders said. Signal maintainers arrived at 10:15 p.m. to repair the problem. By 10:51 p.m., the rescue train arrived and the evacuation was completed by 10:57 p.m., Anders said.
Hartwell said Metro-North’s explanation leaves many questions unanswered. Anders said the rescue train was dispatched immediately. But based on the fact it became delayed an hour after the passenger train stopped, Hartwell wondered exactly when the rescue train was sent out, as a trip from New Haven to Westport should have taken 30 to 40 minutes, he said.
Another criticism Hartwell had is that Westport police and fire were not called to the scene. Anders said there was no need because MTA police was on scene.
“It took half an hour to get their police there when they could have had Westport there in five minutes,” Hartwell said, noting Metro-North said MTA police arrived at 9:20 p.m. “In situations like that, it’s good to have extra security on hand.”
In the end, Hartwell said more could have been done for the passengers during their two-hour stint on the train.
“As far I can see, no one tried to bring them blankets or coffee — nothing," he said.
Although cold, Anders said, the train cars retained enough heat to keep the passengers safe. MTA police, she said, determined the temperature on the train was above freezing.
Hartwell said the Commuter Rail Council will review the incident at its Feb. 19 meeting, which he hopes will be held in Westport. Commuters, especially those who were on Wednesday night's train, are encouraged to attend.
(Editor's note: This story was reported and written before the Thursday night signal failure on Metro-North.)