The past year was a bad one for Metro-North. A derailment and collision in Bridgeport injured at least 50 people, and another derailment in the Bronx killed four. Even Governor Dannel Malloy said on WNPR’s Where We Live that the railroad “couldn’t have had a worse year.”
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal released data on Friday showing that Metro-North had been fined $552,000 over the past decade for safety violations and defects.
The railroad’s current standards of running trains of time isn’t “anywhere near the historic performance,” said Jim Redeker, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Transportation. He also said the railroad is turning a corner, with a better future ahead.
While you wait for that to happen, you can avoid some of the delays if your travel time is flexible.
The railroad releases data on delays of six minutes or more starting from August 2011, so commuters can print out a record to prove to their bosses that the train was what made them late. An analysis of this data on the New Haven Line shows two simple patterns of when delays happen. If you'd like to join in, or see if we missed anything, download the full data set here.
Most of them happen during off-peak hours.
That’s done on purpose, according to Redeker. The crew has to do maintenance work sometime, and as most commuters take the trains during the morning and afternoon rush hours, off-peak hours are more likely to be used for maintenance work.
You’re also least likely to hit a delay on Sunday, according to David Nelson, director of transit engineering at Jacobs Engineering and co-author of a 2000 article analyzing years of delay data across 19 commuter rail systems in the U.S. That’s because there’ll be less delays with fewer trains running. Nelson has kept up with current developments and said the industry hasn’t changed much since his first analysis.
Most delays happen during the summer and fall.
Notice the increases around April and May every year, with delays at high levels before falling around November. You might think most delays happen during the winter with heavy snowstorms, but that’s not the case. That’s because summer and fall means construction season, said Nelson.
The leaves during the fall are also particularly troublesome, said Redeker of the Connecticut DOT. As he explained, trains going over wet leaves creates an oily substance making the tracks slippery.
Metro-North still has some way to go. The number of trains that got delayed for an hour or more in the first three months of this year is already approaching the total number from last year.
So what can we do?
Penalties for Delays
One lead that Connecticut’s Office of Legislative Research looked into is about how the railroad is run. The New Haven Line is owned by Connecticut but operated and maintained by Metro-North, a quasi-public New York State Agency. Some other systems, such as the Tri-Rail in southern Florida and another in San Jose, Calif., are contracted out. Those train operators can be fined if trains are late, and they can get bonuses if 95 percent or more of the trains are on time in a year.
David Nelson studied this as well, and explained that some major cities like New York and Chicago had commuter rail systems since the World War 1 or earlier and kept them, but systems in other cities didn't survive with the rise of cars and highways. But in the mid-80s, some cities that had lost their commuter rail systems, or had never had them before, wanted their own systems. The owners of the actual railway lines had no interest in running commuter rail, so the systems were contracted out. These newer systems are the ones with penalty and incentive structures, but Nelson said he didn’t find any data to show that it drives the railroad to do a particularly good job.
What Railroads Can Learn From Baseball Teams
A lot of delays happen in cascades, one train is late, pushing the next one back and so on, said Nelson. He also looked at how other industries have tackled punctuality problems, particularly airlines.
A plan to make trains run on time needs functioning infrastructure (bridges, signals and so on) and good day-to-day management (for instance, the crews have to be at the right place at the right time.)
“A commuter railroad is a lot like a baseball team,” Nelson said.
Think of a delay like a baseball being hit: a good team has to wait for that to happen and handle it well.
“The same sorts of drills and the same sorts of logics and preplanning that a baseball team does to make sure that a routine popup doesn't result in a hit, same situation with running a railroad: drills and opportunities and planning to make it so that a routine and problem with an engine doesn't result in a dreadful morning rush hour.”
Better Technology For Better Trains
Jim Redeker of the Connecticut DOT acknowledged the patterns in delays, but he said that might all change in the future.
“I would not tell you that history will be a predictor of the future,” Redeker said. “I think that the New Haven line's future is going to be as bright as its history was.”
He said the railroad will be upgrading its old technology, in particular the overhead wires and train cars. The system of overhead wires is more than 100 years old, and the wires expand and contract under different temperature, causing a lot of delays in the summer. But the plan is to finish replacing those old wires with new, less-heat sensitive ones called “constant tension catenary” by this year.
Redeker also expects to have new trains by around next year.
“Frankly we've had old cars that are just awful in the winter time, the new ones are built to be resilient in the winter time and not have those impacts,” Redeker said. “I think the future's going to be very different than the past and some of the patterns you see will be very, very different.”