An old cable that was six years past its expiration date crippled the Metro-North New Haven Line last week.
In the grand scheme of things, that six years is nothing for a rail system that's running on ancient tracks, bridges and other infrastructure, some that dates back to when William McKinley was president.
"I've described this as a Third World railroad, and I've ridden railroads in the Third World that are more reliable than this," said James Cameron, a member of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, an advocate group for riders.
For the second time in four months, commuters were stranded on platforms throughout southwestern Connecticut and faced days of either torturous commutes or not going to work at all.
On May 17, a train collision on the Fairfield-Bridgeport border injured more than 70 riders and disrupted rail service for five days. The incident remains under investigation and federal authorities have focused on track maintenance and failure.
This begs the question: Are needed upgrades to the system so far outpacing the resources that commuters should brace for more frequent disruptions?
"I wouldn't feel comfortable saying this is the new norm," said Ryan Lynch, associate director of the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "But if we continue to neglect the infrastructure we have and not maintain a state of good repair, it will be much more costly in the long run for commuters and the state."
Follow the money
The question of how to pay for the New Haven Line, 74 miles of rail bed between New Haven and Grand Central Terminal, has been debated for decades, according to a 2011 report from Connecticut's Transportation Strategy Board.
In the mid-1960s, the governors of Connecticut and New York began prying the rail line from the private companies that had run it since the turn of the century. The original deal saw the two states splitting the subsidies 50-50.
By the early 1980s, the federal government required Connecticut and New York to directly operate the rail line.
That led to the creation of Metro-North, a subsidiary of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which took over operations.
The two states eventually agreed on a 65-35 formula, reflecting the greater mileage of track in Connecticut. The state also pays for 100 percent of the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines.
In 2012 the total expenses for the New Haven Line were $368.3 million. Of that, fares covered $268.9 million. Connecticut paid $71.5 million and New York paid $27.9 million of the remaining $99.4 million.
But it's the opinion of many rail advocates -- including the president of the MTA and Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy -- that the line has been underfunded for decades.
`Pioneer days' technology
"This is the busiest rail line in the United States," MTA President Howard Permut said in an interview in May while inspecting track repairs following the collision in Bridgeport. "It's the lifeblood of Connecticut. It's critical to New York state. And it's been grossly under-invested in."
For example, it took state Sen. Antonietta "Toni" Boucher, R-Wilton, 17 years just to convince her colleagues to pay for an electronic track switch on the Danbury branch. That job is still done by manual lever -- just like in "the pioneer days," she says. That new switch will finally take over for muscle power in November. "It was my longest crusade," she said.
Rowland's successor, Republican M. Jodi Rell, and Malloy, a Democrat, have been credited with focusing more resources on mass transit and Metro-North. But the years and decades of giving the New Haven Line short shrift have left the railroad with a lot of catching-up to do, everyone knowledgeable on the subject says.
"I don't think enough money has been spent on the line over a long period of time. My administration is trying to spend as much money as can be accommodated by actual actions," Malloy said last week.
"There are things that have been in the hopper for quite some time that could raise revenue from people coming through the state," Lynch said. "We're supporters of congestion pricing along the I-95 corridor."
That's another word for tolls -- an issue that has been debated in Hartford for years, but never seems to go anywhere.
Even when improvements are made, it's a tough slog. The long-running catenary upgrade begun in the late 1990s was initially supposed to cost about $300 million. The new price tag is closer to $880 million.
Third World railroad
"This is not an act of God, this is human error," said Cameron, of the rail council. "The commissioner of the DOT has been saying to deaf ears for years that we need to upgrade this infrastructure, but the Legislature has not embraced this idea," he said.
Cameron applauded the $1.1 billion purchase of the new M-8 rail cars which are still being delivered.
"But those new cars are no better than the tracks that they ride on, the bridges they go over and the wires that provide them with power," he said.
He said that Metro-North deserves points for doing as good a job as it can under the circumstances.
"They are reliant on the state of New York and Connecticut to come up with the money," Cameron said. "Malloy is absolutely right. We're talking about the economic viability of the state."
He said that New York is "absolutely" doing a better job in funding its commuter rail system.
"To be fair, the Hudson and Harlem lines are a little newer and they don't have all of the bridges that we have," he said, "but I think that they've done a much better job."
Boucher says that she has been fighting an uphill battle for years in getting funds for rail commuters, noting that most of the state is wedded to highways, not rails. "Even the governor (John G. Rowland), when I first was elected as a state rep, decides that he's going to shut down the entire Danbury Branch line," she said.
She said that her district "went ballistic."
"Real estate agents were calling me up and saying `People are ripping up contracts right in front of me.' I camped out in front of the governor's office so I could explain to them how critical the railroads are to the economics of the state."
Both Cameron and Boucher said that the disruption caused by the failure of one cable should serve as a warning to the Department of Homeland Security.
"Thank God that this wasn't an attack on our country," Boucher said. "Maybe this will be an object lesson. This needs to be a top priority, both for the federal government and the state. The president should be weighing in on this."
Even Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, in charge of a city with urgent needs, said rail needs to be No. 1 on the state's priority list.
"This is a really big problem," Finch said. "And I think all of us should come together in a bipartisan nature and fund a large bond project to do what it takes to get Metro-North, through Connecticut, up to speed."
There are four movable bridges on the line that are more than a century old: the Walk in Norwalk, the Cos Cob bridge in Greenwich, the Devon bridge in Milford (over the Housatonic River) and the Saga Bridge in Westport. All of them typically fail to close properly several times a year.
On Oct. 9, 2012, the 562-foot Walk swing bridge became stuck in an open position for three hours on a Sunday afternoon. The bridge was built in 1897.
"What happened on Oct. 9 was our worst-case scenario and makes it clear what kind of impact there would be if we couldn't close it for a number of days, and given that it is 120 years old, it is certainly a probability," Permut said. "Without those bridges, there is no Northeast Corridor and no service to Boston."
Not all bad news
To be sure, all is not gloom and doom on the New Haven Line.
By the end of 2014, all commuters will be in the new M-8 rail cars; 405 are being added at a cost of $1.1 billion, and they're better able to shrug off snowstorms. Another $875 million is being spent in a long-term project to replace the catenary lines; the new ones will be less prone to failures caused by temperature extremes.