Power failure snarls NYC commute for thousands

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A Metro North costumer service agent helps a morning rush hour commuter with train information at Grand Central Terminal on Sept. 26, 2013, in New York. (Photo: Mary Altaffer, AP)NEW YORK — Tens of thousands of commuters scrambled Thursday for alternative transportation between the Connecticut suburbs and the city as a power failure disabled one of the nation's busiest commuter rail lines for a second day.
Parts of Interstate 95 were backed up for hours as transit officials scrambled to find alternative power sources and avoid what they said could be weeks of snarled commutes.
Amtrak also felt the impact. The national carrier said it will offer refunds or vouchers to passengers who changed their plans because of disruptions on the Metro-North commuter railroad's New Haven Line. Amtrak trips between New York and Boston are running as much as 90 minutes late because of congestion caused by the commuter line outage, Amtrak said.
Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for Metro-North, said officials are working to accommodate riders after power was lost along an 8-mile stretch of track. Using buses to connect people from Connecticut to New York, Anders said about 50% of New Haven line riders were being accommodated. The line serves 125,000 daily passengers at 38 stations in 23 towns.
Metro-North urged customers to telecommute or find alternative transportation. Anders said the last time a disruption lasted this long was during Hurricane Sandy.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy warned that repairs could take more than three weeks.
"This is going to be a substantial disruption for a substantial period of time," Malloy said. "Folks, plan on long-term lack of service or being underserved."
Malloy came to New York Thursday evening to express his frustrations and those of the 125,000 Connecticut commuters affected by the power outage wreaking havoc on train schedules. Calling the train problems a "horrendous situation," Malloy said he met with Metro North, MTA and Con Edison officials and asked for a refund plan for affected riders.
If no plan is given, Malloy said he would consider legal action to get his residents their money back.
"This is not an act of God as we normally treat weather conditions," he said standing in Grand Central Thursday night. "This is a failure, for one reason or another, of the system."
He said latest the power problem could be resolved is Oct. 14 but added that he was pushing for it to be fixed as early as Oct. 7. He said he has also asked officials to come up with a detailed timeline by this weekend so that Connecticut commuters will know how to plan their work weeks.
Partial service to the affected lines might be restored during the repairs using alternative sources of electricity though that method would supply substantially less power than the lines usually have, Malloy said.
The New York-based utility Consolidated Edison plans to set up three transformers to bring 13,000 volts to a line that failed Wednesday, but it is unclear how many trains could be served with the added power since the line normally requires 138,000 volts, Malloy said. Test are planned for the weekend to see if the alternative sources of power will work.
Malloy stressed officials must figure out what went wrong and how to avoid such failures from happening again.
"There appears to have been little to no plan for this type of catastrophic failure," he said, explaining that a two to three week repair time was unacceptable.
The source of a power failure has not yet been determined, said Allan Drury, spokesman for the utility Consolidated Edison. "We are working around the clock," he said.
Drury said the situation is much like if an electrical cord carrying power to a toaster failed. Without a way to get electricity, the substation lost power and disrupted train traffic.
In most cases, one cable failing wouldn't disrupt service because there are usually two cables, Drury said. In this case, however, one cable had been put out of service on Sept. 13 for a system update. That left one cable providing electricity — until Wednesday.
Paul Rogers, of Westport, Conn., returned from vacation to his job in New York on Thursday. Rogers, who works in the television industry, normally leaves his southwestern Connecticut home at 7:35 a.m. to catch a 7:48 a.m. Metro-North train, an hour-or-so commute on the New Haven Line to Manhattan.
On Thursday, Rogers left his home at 6:30 a.m., got stuck in traffic and arrived at work at 9:10 a.m. On Friday, he says, he will leave earlier to try to avoid traffic.
Besides the extra time spent commuting, the lack of rail service hits him in the wallet. Rogers says he must pay for gas, tolls and parking daily, and he has already paid Metro-North $341 for a monthly pass.
"Metro-North is the bane of my existence," Rogers says. "Even at their best, they are horrible."
Dave Scally, who works for the city of New York, boarded a 5:40 a.m. Metro-North train on the New Haven Line at the Springdale station in Stamford, Conn. When he reached Stamford's main train station, there were no connecting trains to Manhattan.
It took a couple more trains, a bus and a subway to get to work in Queens, a commute of almost three hours. Normally, it takes him about an hour and 15 minutes.
"I can't understand why they can't jury-rig something to work or have alternate transportation available," Scally says.
Mary Jo Brown, of Bethel, Conn., said she is "disgusted, angry and inconvenienced" by the Metro-North problems. She says she regularly encounters problems with service, fares and treatment of customers.
"They keep raising prices, and the service is degrading," Brown said.
Brown, a systems analyst for an insurance company in Manhattan, says she decided not to go to work Thursday to avoid the commuting problem. She says she will work from home Friday. "I am not even dealing with it," she says.
In New York's Grand Central, dozens of commuters made their way through a maze of people in the hopes of getting to packed trains heading to Connecticut. Several screens flashed "service advisory" explaining that there would be train issues "until further notice." Echoing through most people's mind: Get there early or stand and wait.
That's what motivated Caty MacMaster, 18, (cq) to head for a 3:40 p.m. train to Stamford, Conn. Wednesday she waited about three hours in Connecticut for a train to New York and then slept in the city for fear she'd have to face the train system again.
"I had to go home today," she said. "I'm wearing the same clothes from yesterday."
A student at International Culinary Center, MacMaster missed the first half of a fish gutting lesson yesterday. She had hoped to board a 7 a.m. train but instead waited until a train showed up around 10 a.m.
But though she described the commute as awful, MacMaster isn't complaining. She spent part of her childhood in India and had to ride the bus to high school for two hours each way everyday.
"There were cows and other things (in traffic)," she said. "With transport, there's nothing you can do about it."
MacMaster is however planning to go home and pack a bag just in case she has to spend more nights with her friend. Her school is pretty strict on attendance so she's hoping to plan around the track work.
MacMaster's approach is similar to Frank Johnston, who develops packaging for cosmetics and attends meetings in the city a couple of times a week.
"Frustration doesn't do any good," he said, calmly sitting in a 4:08 p.m. train to Stamford. "It just gets you wound up."
Instead, Johnston, 58, counseled that people should leverage the commuting problems by doing things like having dinner in the city while rush hour dies down.
Although his approach was different from other more bothered passengers, Johnston admitted he also only had a 20 minute delay in getting from his home in Fairfield, Conn. to New York Thursday.
He also had a seat when many people on the packed train that delivered him to Grand Central Thursday morning had to stand. Even more, Wednesday he drove into the city and somehow avoided any signs of additional congestion.
"It's dumb luck," he said smiling. "But in situations like this, you have to go with the flow."
Meanwhile, he said he'll be more strategic about trips into the city and may even stay overnight with a friend until things clear up.
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