Commuters: Metro-North bill of rights doesn't go far enough
STAMFORD -- A customer bill of rights under consideration by Metro-North Railroad is being met with a tepid response by members of the state's commuter council.
Members of the 15-member appointed state watchdog group said without additional language, a proposed draft of a customer service pledge offered by the state Department of Transportation and the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council this week won't provide enough guidance to riders about their rights from the agency in terms of substitute bus service or communication during service lapses. The pledge should also promise to streamline refund policies for inconvenienced passengers, and guarantee greater efforts to provide seating on trains.
"All of us know if our flight gets canceled, we get our money back, or if we get bumped from a plane, we have certain rights," said Jeff Maron, a Stamford member of the council. "If Metro-North provides a quality service then why are they afraid to provide refunds for those rare occurrences when they don't?"
The draft document provided by the state DOT is identical to one publicized earlier this week as a customer service pledge to riders on the Long Island Rail Road.
The eight-point document includes promises to prioritize providing safe travel, maintain clean rail stations and cars, and provide better information during prolonged service disruptions along with other rights.
Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman Jim Cameron said he'd hoped a cornerstone of a customer bill of rights would address a clearer more liberal fare refund policy, including refunds for monthly ticket holders, after service disruptions.
The council has been working on their own version of a bill of rights for passengers since July with State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, who championed the idea after more than 100 pasengers were stranded on a sweltering Metro-North train during a July heatwave in which temperatures soared into the triple digits.
Currently, riders are able to submit fare refund requests due to poor service on an individual basis rather than specific criteria like the length of delay or service suspension that gives riders a yardstick on which to request their money back.
"I do think if there is a major service disruption and an alternate mode of transportation can't be given, people should be compensated for the period of time their tickets are worthless," Cameron said.
Maron said that he also felt that the draft proposal is too non-specific and should have better defined standards for what type of service the railroad is willing to guarantee.
Maron said more clearly stated guidelines for how quickly customers can expect substitute buses to pick them up after a train breaks down or information updates during service disruptions should be explicit. The MTA's draft proposal promises to make "every effort" to provide emergency bus service.
"A bill of rights without sanctions for failure to deliver is one with little benefit," Maron said. "It demonstrates to the riding community that Metro-North is unwilling to stand behind their product and that is a shame because they have a hell of a product."
Connecticut DOT and Metro-North officials declined comment on the document and said they are working with the state rail council to consider their input.
Connecticut DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said that offering a proportional credit to monthly ticket holders could be discussed further with the council.
Currently the MTA is in the process of revising the refund policies for Metro-North and the LIRR, and will begin waiving the $10 charge for customers seeking refunds on one-way or round-trip tickets during major service disruptions.
John Hartwell, a Westport member of the council said a more pressing priority for commuters not addressed by the MTA's proposal is providing seats for customers on trains.
In the council's proposed bill of rights which Hartwell wrote, he added language calling on conductors to use their authority to ask passengers to move bags and other objects off seats when they find passengers standing in vestibules and aisles.
Conductors filling that role is more effective than asking passengers to try to find a seat next to a reluctant passenger on a packed train, Hartwell said.
"If the railroad would commit to having conductors enforce the rules it would be great," Hartwell said. "Right now people stand for an hour or more because people have bags on the seat or wedged things into the seats...The conductor should make room for them."
Staff Writer Martin B. Cassidy can be reached at (203) 964-2264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.