Home Metro-North A collision response with little overall coordination

A collision response with little overall coordination

by Benjamin Kabak

A glimpse inside one of the damaged Metro-North trains. (Photo via @KarenLeeWFSB)

As Metro-North crews work to repair the twisted rails and investigators continue to probe Friday’s derailment/collision, the MTA is warning that commute woes could continue well into the coming week. The accident has snarled traffic throughout the Northeast Corridor, and it serves to underscore how fragile the region’s transportation is and how disjoined coordination across entities can be.

The MTA and Connecticut’s Department of Transportation have put in place a plan for the 30,000 customers impacted by the 31-mile outage near the east end of the New Haven Line. On Monday morning, a shuttle train will run between New Haven and Bridgeport with express buses providing service to Stamford where trains to the city will be running. Local buses will operate to and from Bridgeport, Fairfield Metro, Fairfield and Westport, but no buses will serve Southport or Greens Farms. All in all, 120 buses from CT Transit, MTA Bus and other local companies will provide service. It won’t be enough.

The MTA has a full list of service changes and advisories posted on its website but offers up some bullet points, a few more obvious than others, as well.

  • Travel times will be significantly longer than normal and trains will be significantly crowded.
  • New Haven Line Customers east of South Norwalk are encouraged to seek alternative ways to get to and from work or stagger their work schedule.
  • If possible, customers are advised to use the Harlem Line as an alternative. New Haven Line rail tickets will be cross-honored.
  • ConnDOT will cross-honor New Haven Line pre-paid rail tickets (as a temporary Bus/Rail uniticket) on I-95 Corridor Bus Service.
  • Metro-North will cross-honor Amtrak tickets.

Speaking of Amtrak, let’s how the nation’s rail carrier is handling it. On their alert page, they warn that service is suspended between New York and New Haven with limited service from New Haven to Boston. “There is no estimate on service restoration,” Amtrak warns.

Their solution is to foist every alternative planning onto Metro-North’s shoulders. “Starting Monday, Metro-North Railroad will offer alternate transportation for passengers traveling between New Haven, Conn., and Grand Central Terminal via a train-bus-train connection,” Amtrak’s website advises. “Amtrak passengers using this option will need to arrange for transportation between Grand Central and New York Penn Station.”

In Connecticut, the state is offering more free parking for commuters impacted by the service outages. As Chris O’Leary noted, this is likely to lead to more traffic and delays as buses are held up by drivers fighting for parking spots. It’s a transit armageddon, and I can’t even begin to imagine what I-95 will resemble come the morning.

Meanwhile, the alternate routes are a bloody mess. Cap’n Transit has been retweeting choice complaints in his Twitter timeline, and Northeast Corridor riders are finally experiencing the ineptitude of bus companies. There are complaints about routes to Manhattan that go through surface streets in the Bronx and routes to New Haven from Port Authority via New Jersey. Lines are hours long, and the bus companies offering extra service or even acknowledging the problems.

So we’re in a bad situation with no overall coordination. Two tracks are out of service due to scheduled track work while another set were heavily damaged by Friday’s collision, and no one has picked up the slack. Considering how many people are dependent upon this route for work, for life, for anything, this response is an indictment of the way we as a society view transit even in the most transit-accessible parts of the country.

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Nathanael May 20, 2013 - 3:36 am

For Boston to New York, you’re now best off taking the Lake Shore Limited to Albany. Which runs once a day and is subject to delays from Chicago. Yeech!

Unfortunately, this is another example of what happens when there is no redundancy in a system.

This crash, closing two tracks, took place on a section of track where two of the four tracks were already closed for bridge and catenary work — a worst case scenario, really.

And of course the old alternate route, via Brewster, isn’t in good enough condition to use. Those secondary lines should have been maintained.

Marc Shepherd May 20, 2013 - 11:53 am

Unfortunately, this is another example of what happens when there is no redundancy in a system…. And of course the old alternate route, via Brewster, isn’t in good enough condition to use. Those secondary lines should have been maintained.

No sane person is going to pay for redundancy, because once every 20 years or so there might be a crash that takes out the line for a few days.

If the extra funding were available (which it isn’t), it ought to go towards improvements that would be used every day, not for mothballed lines that might be used once in a blue moon.

Bolwerk May 20, 2013 - 1:43 pm

The “redundancy” he’s talking about is the type that would be used every day. At the same time, in a crisis, it would allow travelers between major destinations to keep their rail service, while travelers between minor destinations can fall back on buses and driving for part of their trip.

Marc Shepherd May 21, 2013 - 7:39 am

The suggestion was to maintain the old line “just in case.” If there’s an actual demand for transit along that route, it’s a completely different story, but no one I know of has made any such proposal.

Bolwerk May 21, 2013 - 9:42 am

He said secondary lines should have been maintained, and I seriously doubt he meant they should be maintained without service. He can correct me if I’m wrong. He’s not a moron though, so I don’t think he believes that. (Maybe he’s abusing the word “secondary a little, since there isn’t really any reason for an alternate route to be less useful than the current route.)

Either way, uou’d be hard pressed to draw a line through any part of The Bronx or denser parts of Westchester and not find sufficient demand for at least hourly rail transit service to Manhattan. And it’s not that hard to find such demand in Connecticut either.

JJJJ May 20, 2013 - 4:00 am

Sounds like NJ the week after Sandy. No trains. Coach USA offered zero additional service. State said “sorry”.

If you can drive, rent a car or lose your job seems to be the way these agencies operate.

Michael K May 20, 2013 - 9:45 am

Actually, I was working as a private contractor at PABT Operations the week following Sandy and NJ Transit hired over 5000 buses from all over the Northeast to fill in for extra service and the PNC Bank Arts Center Park & Ride.

It was a huge logistics problem because many of the drivers were not familiar with NYC bus driving – the PABT recorded about 4 minor bus collisions per hour – One day a bus sideswiped the PA Police Booth within the terminal ramp on the first level!

JJJJ May 20, 2013 - 3:17 pm

The key word is “park and ride”. Again, if you didnt have a car, you were screwed. There were no buses stopping at the train stations.

tacony palmyra May 21, 2013 - 3:22 pm

It was also hard to rent a car after Sandy because the rental companies were all swamped. I tried.

Kevin P. May 20, 2013 - 4:51 am

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Duke May 20, 2013 - 8:43 am

Amtrak could in theory reroute some trains up the Waterbury Branch from Milford and then across the Beacon Secondary from Derby to either the Danbury Branch at Danbury, the Harlem Line at Southeast, or the Hudson Line at Beacon.

Problem is, that route is all one track and probably not approved for passenger revenue service if it’s approved for any use by passenger railroads at all (a couple years ago Metro-North claimed they had equipment “stuck” in Danbury because of a washout along the line, when logically the Beacon Line could have been used to remove them).

That, and, given the extra time it would add to the trip, it’s faster for people use buses or cars as an alternative from New Haven to New York.

John-2 May 20, 2013 - 9:17 am

Aside from speed restrictions, Amtrak seems to want full electrification for its Northeast Corridor trains. That very much constrains their emergency routing options, even on lines that are certified for 70 mph or higher speed limits.

Walter May 20, 2013 - 1:20 pm

That route from Derby to Danbury is so slow, curvy, and hilly that the even the New Haven Railroad downgraded its use for passenger trains. Geography and topography dictated that the main line along the shore was the only practical way to move people quickly and efficiently.

Metro-North did move equipment from Danbury to Brewster using the line after the Danbury Branch washout, but at restricted speed the entire way. There are pictures online of the move somewhere.

Alon Levy May 21, 2013 - 3:09 am

What’s the point of all of this? The NEC north of New York is already not much faster than a bus. A detour via the Beacon Line is going to be excruciatingly slow; might as well run buses and spend the money that would be spent on reactivation on better preventive maintenance instead.

BBnet3000 May 20, 2013 - 9:10 am

Theres no way to very rapidly (think post-Sandy speed) install switches and get the other 2 tracks up to par, just for this relatively small section?

Hoosac May 20, 2013 - 10:48 am

Something similar occurred not too long ago on the LIRR, where a train derailed and tore up about 1,000 feet of track. (No injuries, fortunately.) Took nearly a week to get it back in service. In this case, there are 2,000 feet of track to replace, plus overhead wire, etc.

al May 20, 2013 - 1:11 pm

I can’t speak fro catenary work (quite a few wires came down if you look closely at the crash pics), but there are some modular concrete prefab track panels with the assembly time of hours.

Walter May 20, 2013 - 1:23 pm

Metro-North was killing two birds with one stone: replacing the catenary and rebuilding a bunch of overpasses on those tracks at the same time. There’s four or five overpasses where the tracks are removed.

Douglas John Bowen May 20, 2013 - 9:22 am

And Amtrak, with no direct authority over this portion of the crash site, should do … what, exactly? Deploying the (non-existent) replacement Amtrak bus fleet is, in reality, a facile offering. I concur that Amtrak should do more, but I don’t have a (real) solution, either.

Larry Littlefield May 20, 2013 - 10:16 am

Every now and then there is some kind of disaster and people have to make adjustments for a while. Hopefully they will do all they can to restore service.

Rail has lots of advantages — capacity, cost when demand fills capacity, speed if the infrastructure supports it, and all manner of environmental impacts. But it has the disadvantage of inflexibility — a train can’t detour to a side road like a bus or car. Those benefitting from the flexibility of bus and car, unfortuantely, are now experiencing the disadvantages of cost, environmental impact, and lack of capacity.

We’ll have to wait until service is fully restored to evaluate the totality of the response. By comparing it with the Mianus River Bridge collapse disaster on I-95, which some readers here may be too young to remember.


There is just not a lot of room on the coast of Connecitcut, which is why traffic is bad, disruptions are bad, and the rail line is critical.

Michael K May 20, 2013 - 12:31 pm

If we had multiple rail lines, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Just like we have multiple roads.

Larry Littlefield May 20, 2013 - 1:26 pm

Rail lines aren’t subsidized to the same extent as roads.

There used to be four railroads with 12 tracks running from metro New York to Buffalo. That was too much, and they went broke. Now we are down to two railroads with three tracks.

llqbtt May 20, 2013 - 2:31 pm

CT has only one multiple road as you put it, I 95 and CT 15 (Merritt/Wilbur Cross). Truck would need to divert to Rt 1. I 84 has no alternate and is jammed pack as a result. There is also no redundancy on north-south routes.

Bolwerk May 20, 2013 - 1:55 pm

It’s time to drop this silly flexibility hangup extolled by bus masturbaters. A train can be every bit as flexible as a bus – arguably, more flexible. The caveat is you need to alternate routing options, just like you do for a bus. A bus can’t tear into the wilderness when a roadway is out, and neither can a train when a track is out.

Meanwhile, what people always miss is, delays and congestion are parading the inflexibility of buses and cars. With thousands of miles of more roadway in this region than mainline rail track, buses and cars still can’t move as many people between two points.

Eric May 22, 2013 - 5:54 am

Better to wait a little bit in traffic (car/bus) than to have no service at all (train).

(To be clear, I support trains when they have segregated alignments, just not because of their “flexibility”.

Bolwerk May 22, 2013 - 9:37 am

Better to have a functional rail network. Advocating keeping it so we don’t have one and then pointing and saying, “hurrr, trains aren’t flexible,” is stupid. The only reason for the lack of flexibility for the trains is the capacity issue: there were two working tracks, and they went out.

Really, let’s see how well cars would work with two lanes in the entire region – and then let’s take those two lanes out of commission. This is a capacity problem, not a flexibility problem.

Jim D. May 20, 2013 - 10:54 am

I believe you are underestimating how many people will either telecommute or chnage their hours to avoid the congestion. Based on past rides on the New Haven Line during peak hours, the affected commuters are mostly professionals who likely could work remotely for a short stretch of time.

Ant6n May 20, 2013 - 10:55 am

So there’s caternary work on the on the other two tracks. Can’t they move away any construction equipment they have on the tracks, and run Diesels?

Anonymous May 20, 2013 - 12:34 pm

They can’t — there is bridge work in that section too. I have not been there recently, but a bridge or two might be missing from the two tracks which were originally out of service.

John Doe May 20, 2013 - 11:04 am

oh the humanity! we are doomed! the ineptitude of it all! for once i wish this country could get rail service right like Europe and Asia, we need to invest heavily in our infrastructure for the future, we need more rail lines and better upkeep!!! oh well, guess it aint never gonna happen…

alen May 20, 2013 - 11:53 am

a few years ago hurricane irene washed out one of the tracks and it took metro north months to fix it. people i know of worked from home a few days a week.

except for the injuries, this doesn’t sound as bad as Irene

lawhawk May 20, 2013 - 12:26 pm

Yet again, it takes a disaster of some form to remind everyone that rail mass transit carries more people in an efficient manner, and when that particular link is severed, the spillover effect is pretty severe.

The problems with this particular incident stem from the fact that two of the four tracks in that area are off-line due to pre-existing rail work (overhead catenary upgrades).

That meant that there were only two tracks available for ongoing service, and those two tracks are out due to the derailment.

What can be done going forward? Have a contingency plan to suspend the electrification project (or other rail upgrade work) to get service restarted more quickly – that would depend on the nature of the work?

Shunting everyone to buses isn’t particularly successful. Amtrak simply doesn’t have that capacity the way that the MTA or NJ Transit could call upon their bus assets (and as Sandy showed, that was insufficient to deal with the crush of the rush hour commutes) so that’s not an option.

The best option is to try and restore rail service as close to the disruption point and set up a bus system that can handle the overflow.

That’s more or less what the MTA-MNR sought to do, and Amtrak simply piggybacked to that.

BenW May 20, 2013 - 12:50 pm

You can’t really “suspend” bridge replacement work, though.

al May 20, 2013 - 1:14 pm

Yeah, bridge replacement while trains are running usually mean phased structural replacement. A pier here, a girder there. You can’t run trains over those sections without sending them into the water.

skunky May 20, 2013 - 1:42 pm

This kind of stuff happens on the Island of Sodor all the time, and Sir Topham Hatt gets things back up and running in no time at all.

pete May 21, 2013 - 1:24 pm


llqbtt May 20, 2013 - 2:35 pm

This is the main line, and when the main line of anything goes down, that’s basically it. Unless there is a redundant, second main line that could be turned on at the flick of a switch, that’s it. And no one could, would or should pay for a second main line.

Tim May 20, 2013 - 5:22 pm

I’m guessing you haven’t seen Amtrak’s alternatives plan that outlines that very thing?

If Amtrak had their “second spine”, this becomes a regional issue, and affects fewer folks up and down the coast. Alas.

Mike May 20, 2013 - 7:17 pm

Redundancy is only a side effect of the inland HSR route though. The primary goal is bypassing the Shore Line and its tight curves and moveable bridges that severely limit speed and capacity.

Alon Levy May 21, 2013 - 3:14 am

Every day, about 10,000 people ride Amtrak north of New York and 110,000 ride the New Haven Line. This is a regional issue.

If Amtrak had its second spine, it would need centuries to pay off all the inland tunneling. A fraction of the money would suffice to rewrite maintenance rulebooks and improve practices to the point that derailments like this wouldn’t happen. There’s no redundancy in the Shinkansen, AVE, or THSR (specifically picking countries where HSR is on a different gauge from the legacy rail network); they just maintain the tracks adequately to avoid these problems.

Spiderpig May 20, 2013 - 7:29 pm

And Amtrak says nothing of the Vermonter route, which looks like it is running fine when you check the online schedule but also has to go between NYC and New Haven, once each way per day.

Matt D May 21, 2013 - 12:47 am

Forgive the uninformed question from the West Coast but… given that buses cannot use the West Side Hwy and the general crappiness of the BQE, isn’t the use of the GW and NJT (where you are presumably going in the off-peak direction) and the Lincoln Tunnel XBL (which takes you right to the PA terminal)… isn’t routing a New Haven – Port Authority bus through New Jersey a pretty logical decision?

I remember some pretty punishing rides on the 278 when taking the Chinatown bus from Boston. You can’t really complain that they are taking a circuitous route through NJ when the infrastructure in NY is so bad.

Bolwerk May 21, 2013 - 6:05 am

If you’re in LA, do you take a bus toward San Francisco to get to San Diego? West Coast transportation infrastructure is more third world than New York’s (*cough* no subway), but I still don’t see how that would ever make sense.

If your goal is to get to Midtown Manhattan and you are coming from CT, and you find yourself on the way to the GWB, the logical transit option is taking the subway from the GWB to Midtown. There is no problem in NYC. The problem is getting to NYC, and the same problem exists getting to NJ.

Matt D May 21, 2013 - 9:59 am

If the only freeway route towards San Diego was, say, the 10 west to the 405 south, and they both had bus only lanes, the bus would definitely go that way rather than taking slow surface streets, despite the route looking illogical.

If you were running a bus from CT to the Port Authority, what route would you take that would be better? According to Google Maps it should take 20-25 minutes to get from the GWB to the PA via the NJT and Lincoln Tunnel. I can’t believe that’s measurably worse than transferring to the subway and taking the local to Midtown all the way from 181 St.

The only other realistic option I see for a bus would be taking I-278 or I-678 and the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and that’s only 6 miles shorter, and there are no HOV lanes. It would also require crossing Manhattan on surface streets versus the Lincoln XBL’s direct connection to the PA. Hard to see how that’s better.

Bolwerk May 21, 2013 - 11:21 am

First of all, the rail traffic in question is Connecticut service feeding into Grand Central on the east side of Manhattan. The Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd Street (PABT42) is on the west side. No matter what, many would need to walk, bus, or subway back to the east side. You probably may as well just get on the subway as soon as convenient.

Secondly, I would just rule out buses entirely as being a practical one-seat alternative here. Even if the way you’re talking about weren’t roundabout, and even if the traffic conditions were perfect, it would be long and I think further out of the way than just getting a subway at some point in The Bronx or Manhattan. Might be doable though. However, XBL is probably the most congested single transit artery feeding the city.

I can’t believe that’s measurably worse than transferring to the subway and taking the local to Midtown all the way from 181 St.

Believe it. At least from the George Washington Bridge,* the subway ride to Midtown is fairly short (and only the express A stops there). Going back to my point above, however, I think most people would still need to make another crappy transfer to get to the east side.

Regardless, the fastest and most practical solutions probably involve busing people to other MNRR lines, from which they can go to GCT as usual, or to subway services in The Bronx. With the latter, you could actually take the Lex to part of the east side you want to go to, though the bad news is the Lex is pretty congested too.

* There is a Port Authority bus terminal here to, but it’s not bi-directional either. It’s a shame, because it is under-utilized compared to its cousin downtown.


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