Stranded NYC Commuters Ask Why Metro-North’s Power Failed

Less than a year after Consolidated Edison Inc. left 900,000 customers in the dark during Hurricane Sandy, the utility faces the wrath of stranded commuters over a power failure that has crippled trains from New York to Boston.

Con Edison, based in New York, has warned it may take weeks to restore electricity to the Metro-North Railroad’s busiest line, which serves Connecticut and parts of suburban Westchester County. An electrical fault cut power on a feeder cable while an alternate was out of service for improvements.

“It’s like this post-apocalyptic commute, courtesy of Metro-North,” said John Weiss of Larchmont, New York, as he hopped on a train bound for nearby Stamford, Connecticut, yesterday. The New York City Landmark Preservation Commission lawyer said he didn’t understand why there was no backup plan, when “it just seems on a regular basis they have these semi-disasters.”

The latest high-profile power failure for Con Edison follows Sandy, the worst storm in the company’s history, which brought flooding that left lower Manhattan without power for days. A few months before Sandy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, stepped in to resolve an employee lockout by the company that led to protests outside the Upper East Side home of Kevin Burke, the chairman and chief executive officer.

Power Needed

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, said yesterday that Con Edison representatives told him the company is working to get a portion of the electricity needed to the commuter line. The power would come from three transformers to be tested this weekend, Malloy said. He said updates will be provided to residents the night before the Sept. 30 commute.

“There appears to have been little plan for this type of catastrophic failure,” Malloy said during the briefing at Grand Central.

Today, at the Larchmont station on the New Haven line, darkened information boards greeted commuters who waited 30 minutes between trains. Dozens of riders who failed to find seats stood for the duration of the ride to Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, which took about 45 minutes, 10 minutes longer than usual.

The alternate cable taken offline for maintenance might be restored to service by Oct. 7, Malloy said.

Street Poles

Meanwhile, Con Edison is trying to feed power from street utility poles through cables and into transformers, said Mike Clendenin, a company spokesman.

Metro-North, part of the state-owned Metropolitan Transportation Authority, tested the system with just one feeder cable and saw no issues before it went down, said Adam Lisberg, an MTA spokesman. The rail operator is running buses and diesel-powered trains to accommodate no more than a third of the New Haven route’s regular ridership. This is the second major disruption on the line this year, after a May 17 collision left at least 75 people injured.

The power failure also affected Northeast Corridor passenger-rail service, as Amtrak canceled its Acela Express trains between New York and Boston through Sept. 29.

Three Weeks

The cable failed next to the train station in Mount Vernon, New York, on Sept. 25. It had an oil leak, the cause of which is under investigation, said Allan Drury, a Con Edison spokesman.

Such a failure typically takes two to three weeks to fix, the company said. The utility and Metro-North are seeking alternatives to speed restoration. Among the options is drawing power from a nearby system in Harrison, New York, Drury said.

Con Edison last week named John McAvoy, the head of its Orange & Rockland unit, to take over as CEO on Jan. 1, after Burke’s Dec. 31 retirement. Its shares have declined 10 percent since the start of 2012, compared with a 4.6 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Utilities Index.

The company has cut its union workforce, raising concern that service may be affected, said John Melia, a spokesman for the Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2, which represents electrical employees.

“This catastrophic failure is a symptom of their whole mindset, which is we will operate it in a ‘just-in-time’ fashion,” Melia said by telephone. “Things like this are going to happen over and over again.”

Finger Pointing

The union complained to state regulators about service quality in the past year as Con Edison sought higher rates. A July lockout of workers led to neglected repairs and maintenance work, Melia said. The company was then overwhelmed by Sandy, he said.

“Con Edison continually maintains its system to provide the highest levels of safety and reliability and optimizes the use of employees and contractors,” Drury said in response. “We are focused on working with Metro-North to solve the problem, not on assigning blame.”

As work went on to restore power on the busy route, commuters were left to dash for seats on the few trains that were running yesterday afternoon.

Would-be riders flocked to the reader boards in Grand Central, all eyes turned to be the first to catch the track announcement for the next train toward New Haven. As soon as the number went up, dozens sprinted en masse for the gate, to grab a seat or at least find room to stand.

For Frank Capolino at the cavernous station’s Trackside Commissary, the competition meant fewer customers stopping along the way for a beer.

“They’re not worried about drinking anymore. They just want to get home,” said Capolino, who has served passing commuters for 23 years.

Robert Powell, a 49-year-old investment banker, said he paid a car service $140 to bring him into the city from his home in Weston, Connecticut.

“Everybody’s frustrated with everybody,” Powell said before boarding a home-bound train. “It’s just kind of hard to believe that in the biggest and best city in the world, the trains don’t work.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.