Metro-North riders prep for 'SRO' when summer fixes ax rush-hour trains

Metro-North passengers Wednesday braced for crowded trains and slowed-down morning commutes amid news that morning rush-hour trains on two of the railroad's busiest routes will be canceled this summer while workers replace hundreds of water-damaged concrete ties in the Bronx.

"It's going to be standing room only," said David Gramolini, 27, who was commuting to work from White Plains to New York City on Wednesday. "Just not fun in the morning."

Poor drainage on six miles of track between the Melrose and Woodlawn stations has created mud spots, which have deteriorated concrete ties that steady rail lines and make for a smoother ride, Metro-North officials confirmed Tuesday after Newsday learned of the overhaul.


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That means a summer's worth of repairs to replace hundreds of ties along rail lines that carry the New Haven and Harlem line trains. To do the work, Metro-North will need to shut down tracks one at a time until the work is completed around Labor Day.

One morning rush hour train on the Harlem line and another on the New Haven line will be canceled and two morning rush hour trains will be combined, likely leading to delays during some of the railroad's busiest hours. Eight other Harlem and New Haven trains will have schedule adjustments of up to five minutes, according to Metro-North officials.

Some commuters, such as Gramolini, said the cancellations were particularly disturbing in light of March fare hikes that raised the average price of a Metro-North ticket, the second hike in two years with another on the way in 2015.

"I don't understand," Gramolini said. "You raise costs every couple of months and yet you keep taking away trains. It makes no sense."

Others, like Nicole Cortez, 32, who was waiting for a train to take her to her job in New York City, predicted that riders will have to set their alarm clocks a lot earlier.

"I will definitely be leaving earlier," Cortez said.

However, some with more flexibility in their daily commuting schedule took the expected cancellations in stride.

"It's expensive but construction and repairs and maintenance are important also," said Michael Lohr, 36, of White Plains, who commutes to Manhattan for his job in a digital fabrication shop.

Metro-North decided to speed up the Bronx repairs, originally scheduled for next year, after realizing that the concrete ties were rapidly deteriorating and needed to be replaced immediately, officials said. Some 1 to 2 percent of ties along the Bronx tracks will be replaced with traditional wood ties starting July 1, railroad officials said. In addition, new stone ballast will be installed.

Railroad officials did not have an estimate of how much the repairs would cost. They said it is a short-term solution in that area and Metro-North has yet to determine whether further work is needed.

"Metro-North is committed to providing its customers safe, reliable and comfortable train service," Metro-North president Howard Permut said. "We believe that accelerating long-planned track work is the right way to go and we ask the patience of our customers during this crucial effort."

While concrete ties are used throughout the system, the repairs this summer are limited to the Bronx. A private company will conduct an inspection of all the railroad's tracks to see if any other concrete ties need to be replaced, said Marjorie Anders, a Metro-North spokeswoman. In the interim, the railroad will replace ties as problems arise.

CONCRETE TIES HAVE BEEN A PROBLEM BEFORE

The repair project announcement represents the latest bad news for the nation's busiest commuter railroad, already coping with the aftermath of two federal safety probes -- one involving the May 17 derailment of a New Haven line train that injured more than 70 people in Connecticut and the tragic death 11 days later of a track worker struck by a train sent down the wrong tracks.

And it comes some six years after Metro-North waged a legal battle with its previous concrete tie supplier when 52,000 of the 206,000 ties it purchased turned out to be defective, leaving Metro-North with a $14 million repair tab.

Metro-North officials said the latest troubles have less to do with the quality of the concrete ties purchased from Pittsburgh-based Koppers/KSA Inc. than poor drainage along tracks between the Melrose and Woodlawn stations. There, the tracks lie below street level.

Koppers/KSA officials could not be reached for comment.

Concrete ties have been billed as a more cost-effective option than wood ties because they can be spaced further apart and therefore require railroads to buy far fewer of them, according to industry experts. They lie across ballast or supporting gravel and hold rail lines in place. And they're supposed to last 50 years, some 20 more than the average life of a wood tie.

However, veteran track worker Chris Silvera, a ranking Metro-North union official, said the concrete ties may not be the right fit for a northeastern commuter rail, where water regularly pools on rail beds and washes over tracks.

"If you're on a prairie in Texas where the drainage is good, then it's not a problem," said Silvera, the secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 808, which represents track workers. "The wood ties have proven themselves to be better."

Metro-North is not the only railroad to experience problems with its concrete ties.

In 2008, Amtrak announced that it would have to spend tens of millions of dollars to replace defective ties along the Northeast corridor because the ones it had purchased in the 1990s had begun to crack.

Newsday Westchester viewed a number of washed out ties at Metro-North's Fleetwood station on the Harlem Line, where railroad sources said there's an unusually large number of damaged ties. On some ties, concrete was crumbling apart.

As a result, Metro-North workers said, Harlem line trains have been placed under strict speed limits. While the tie damage does not present safety issues, it does make for a rumbling ride for commuters, according to the workers.

SCHEDULE CHANGES THIS SUMMER

The repair work over the summer will start on Track 4, the inbound local track, before progressing to other tracks.

When the train next to the platform is out of service, trains will stop on the inside or express tracks, Metro-North officials said.

The work will create a number of schedule changes. For instance, the 8:03 a.m. Harlem line train out of Mount Vernon West that's due at Grand Central Terminal 35 minutes later will be canceled and the eight stops will be picked up by five different trains making extra stops.

The 8:30 a.m. New Haven line train from New Rochelle scheduled to arrive at Grand Central at 9:05 a.m. will also be canceled and customers will be directed to take the 8:08 a.m. local train out of Stamford, Conn., nine minutes later.

The 7:09 a.m. train from New Canaan, Conn., will make extra stops at Port Chester and Rye after it's combined with the 7:35 a.m. train that typically serves only Port Chester and Rye.

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