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Emergency Responders, Metro-North, Have 'Productive' Meeting

Town and state officials, including officers from Westport's police, fire and EMS departments, met with Metro-North officials to discuss how to improve emergency communications in wake of last Friday's incident involving a disabled train with passengers.

Westport emergency responders reportedly had a “productive” meeting with officials from Metro-North Railroad this morning to discuss communications problems that occurred last Friday when a train carrying passengers became on an inaccessible stretch of track near the Green’s Farms train station, resulting in a delayed response.

In a statement released last Friday, following the incident, Westport Fire Department officials said miscommunication between 911 dispatchers and Metro-North officials delayed Westport EMS’ response — which was a concern since the high heat in the train cars could have resulted in a life-threatening situation for some of the passengers — including three pregnant women who were aboard the eastbound train out of Grand Central Station.

“Today’s after-action review with Metro-North proved to be highly productive,” said Andrew J. Kingsbury, Chief of the Westport Fire Department and the town’s Emergency Management Director, in a statement following the meeting, which was closed to the press and the public. “Several areas were identified where we believe emergency operations can be improved upon, and all agencies are working cooperatively to reach this goal.”

“We appreciate Metro-North’s willingness to meet here in Westport and to learn from each other’s perspective about what happened last Friday,” Chief Kingsbury said. “The end result will be smoother operations in the future for both the emergency responders and the commuting public.”

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who also attended the meeting, said in a statement that the town had “ identified a number of areas where we believe we can improve communication with Metro-North on such emergencies,” however he did not provide details.

“So-called ‘after action’ reviews are the norm in such incidents and we are grateful for Metro-North’s willingness to share with us very quickly from their perspective what happened,” Joseloff said. “I think it was helpful for them to learn what happened from our perspective.”

“For years we have had excellent communications with Metro-North on emergency responses and that is why when issues arose this time we wanted to quickly address them,” Joseloff said. “The train-riding public will benefit from this review and I believe so will other emergency responders who interact with Metro-North on emergencies.”

Jim Cameron, Chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, who attended the second half of the meeting, said “there were some admissions that some things went wrong, from both sides” — however he declined to go into specifics.

Cameron said the meeting not only addressed problems with emergency communications between 911 dispatchers and Metro-North officials, it also addressed the apparent lack of communication between train conductors and passengers.

During last Friday’s incident, passengers complained that they received only one or two updates from the conductors while waiting for about 50 minutes for the train to get moving again. As the passengers waited in the 105-plus degree heat, and began to feel the effects of heat exhaustion, some panicked and dialed 911.

As Cameron pointed out, Metro-North could have reduced the number of 911 calls and panic on the part of passengers had train conductors simply provided more regular updates.

Cameron said it was Metro-North’s “attitude that they didn’t do anything wrong — that it was due to old equipment” — that infuriated so many commuters.

On Tuesday Metro-North for “recent disruptions” to commuter service on the New Haven Line — including Friday’s disabled train incident, as well as disruption to service on Tuesday morning that resulted in delays of up to 40 minutes.

“On Friday afternoon (July 22), a number of trains were delayed when record-breaking temperatures caused wires in the New Haven Line's antiquated catenary system to sag in a number of locations between South Norwalk and New Haven,” the MTA said in a release. “Overloaded power systems also caused transformers and substations to shut down. As a result, trains were either blocked in or were disabled, causing significant delays on the entire line. While we responded to each location as quickly as possible, we continue to review our procedures both internally and with local emergency responders and will make any improvements that are necessary.”

However the MTA did not acknowledge the perceived lack communications with passengers in its statement.

“As you know there are laws against people leaving their dogs in their cars on hot days,” Cameron said. “If you left your dog in your car somewhere last Friday, you’d probably come out and find an officer giving you a ticket. Well, that’s the equivalent of what Metro-North did to those passengers on Friday — so there should be an admission on their part.”

Metro-North officials, however, pointed out that they did, in fact, contact Westport Police and notify them of the disabled train soon after the incident occurred.

Cameron said it came to light during the meeting that Metro-North was more prepared for the incident than had been previously reported.

"Apparently they had done some preparation, in anticipation of this type of incident,” he said, adding that the MTA had equipped repair vehicles with water and other supplies to treat passengers in the event a train became disabled.

What’s more, Cameron said Metro-North Police were “actually the first ones on the scene – they carried cases of water through the woods to the disabled train” for the passengers, while it was on the inaccessible stretch of track. These efforts were not revealed in initial news reports – however they were brought to light during the meeting, he said.

In a statement issued following the disabled train incident, Westport Fire Department officials described the delays they experienced in accessing the passengers, which WFD Deputy Chief Jon Gottfried attributed to “confusion on the part of the MTA dispatchers.”

“In fact the MTA dispatchers contacted by the Westport Fire dispatcher indicated that the train was not carrying passengers,” Gottfried said in the report.

Emergency responders reportedly located the train (which had passengers) a short while later on an inaccessible stretch of track not far from the Sherwood Island Connector — however as soon as they got close it started moving again. The train then progressed to the Greens Farms Station, reportedly on back-up power, where the passengers were offloaded and treated by EMTs from Westport and Fairfield for dehydration and observed for signs of heat exhaustion.

The incident was part of a string of mishaps and service delays up and down the New Haven Line during the past week.

The MTA said Friday's train disablement incident was due to overhead wires sagging in the high heat (which is not uncommon for copper wiring), which then got tangled in the pantograph, the apparatus which conducts electricity from the wires to the train, thus cutting power to the train. A similar incident occurred in Straftford earlier the same day, according to reports.

Meanwhile, Representatives Jim Himes (CT-4) and Rosa DeLauro (CT-4) are calling on Metro-North to “perform an official investigation into the events of Friday, July 22, when trains became inoperable during the afternoon commute and passengers were left stranded on sweltering trains with little information and no safe exit.”

Reps. Himes and DeLauro are urging Metro North to establish a standard operating procedure for responding to train outages that includes specific protocol for communicating with passengers.

“While incidents like this illustrate the dire need to invest in our transportation infrastructure, especially trains in the Northeast, we absolutely must uphold the highest standards of passenger safety,” said Himes in a statement. “I appreciate that Metro North has apologized to passengers, but we need procedures in place to ensure future travelers remain safe and well-informed.”

“Until we complete the long overdue replacement of railcars and electrical systems on the Metro North line we need to ensure that we have policies and procedures in place for future problems,” DeLauro said. “These kinds of delays and miscommunication are not only inconvenient, they can be dangerous. I will keep working, along with my colleagues, to improve our rail infrastructure and ensure that commuters can reach their destination safely and on time.”

In their letter to Metro-North Officials, Himes and DeLauro said the "reports from passengers aboard these trains are alarming."

“Commuters were stranded in train cars with no power as their surrounding temperatures reached over 100 degrees," they wrote. "Meanwhile, they received no information from train officials, leaving them confused, helpless, and, given the weather conditions, in potential physical danger… With no incoming information from MTA or Metro North officials, several individuals who were able to pry open train doors exited trains directly onto the tracks."

“…the blame can only be placed on outdated rail infrastructure that has that has yet to be replaced," they wrote. "But the treatment of passengers and the lack of communication between Metro-North employees and commuters cannot be tolerated.”

In a statement released yesterday, Metro-North responded to DeLauro and Himes’ letter:

“The extreme temperature and its impact on the century-old catenary system combined to create an extraordinarily difficult situation for our customers and the people responding to events on the New Haven Line last Friday. Metro-North Railroad is conducting a review of the circumstances surrounding the multiple incidents that occurred. We also are working with local emergency responders; their input is important to ensure as complete a review as possible. We will share the results of our inquiry.” 

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