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Column: Celebrating Metro-North's 30th Anniversary

Metro-North Railroad President Howard Permut at the dedication of the expanded Cortlandt station in February 2012.
Metro-North Railroad President Howard Permut at the dedication of the expanded Cortlandt station in February 2012. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y./FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. ? Howard Permut, president of the MTA's Metro-North Railroad, wrote this column to mark three decades of Metro-North service.

There is one constant, motivating force behind everything Metro-North has accomplished since its formation on Jan. 1, 1983.

It is you, our customers. Without you, we would not have a reason for being in business.

It was something we were immediately aware of that first year, with a systemwide on-time performance hovering at 80.5 percent (an accomplishment at the time) and a total ridership of 42 million that was on the way down. (Today, our systemwide on-time performance is routinely more than 97 percent and ridership is approaching 84 million.)

In short, the railroad was on the brink of disaster (and rapidly deteriorating). We were increasingly reliant on government subsidies.

Yet, at the same time, we had no credibility to get the needed political or financial support for our efforts.

As a result, our equipment had fallen into a state of disrepair and was continually breaking down. Wheels fell off trains. There were severe standee problems due to continual equipment shortages. Cars that could be placed in service had counter-intuitive climate controls: They were hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

On the infrastructure side, the Park Avenue Viaduct, the main artery feeding Grand Central Terminal, was close to a state of collapse. The Cos Cob Power Plant, which provided power to our New Haven Line, was state-of-the-art technology back in 1910. This resulted in frequent power shortages and delays.

Grand Central Terminal was becoming known as a “de facto shelter for the homeless.” And a call was under way to institute publicly subsidized bus competition operating from our outlying stations.

We were the very definition of a true transportation crisis.

These problems didn’t happen overnight. Before our formation, there had been almost no capital investment in the system for about 40 years.

Part of the reason for this was the simple reluctance of government to invest in public transportation. The other part was that officials questioned the ability of the old railroad to wisely spend the money given to them ? a legitimate concern!

So how did we turn this situation around?

First, it was through consistent Capital Investment. Since 1983, the MTA Capital Program has invested more than $6 billion in Metro-North’s rolling stock (including our M7 and M8 rail cars), infrastructure, station and parking facilities (including Yankees-East 153rd Street Station) and shops and yards (including our new Coach and Locomotive Shops at Harmon), bringing them to what the industry calls a "state of good repair." (The state of Connecticut has also invested more than $3 billion in improvements on the New Haven Line.) And there was the revitalization of Grand Central, celebrating its centennial this year, which restored this Beaux-Arts gem to its original grandeur while developing it into a retail and dining destination.

While capital funding was, and is, absolutely critical, it could not have alone solved our problems.

The new leadership that inherited this failing operation developed a corporate vision. Initially, the focus was on the basics: providing a safe, clean, comfortable ride. The railroad began operating like a private business, setting goals to achieve this modest vision; developing initiatives to meet those goals; and then, implementing those initiatives.

It is one thing to have a plan on paper. To make it a reality, the railroad began hiring the best people it could find and provided them with the training, tools and facilities needed to achieve our goals.

Building a first-rate workforce also meant forging partnerships with our unions and union leadership. Together, we began to break down barriers and give employees a sense of ownership so they could help identify new efficiencies in the workplace.

We created a new atmosphere, one where employees were treated well and took pride in their work.

In turn, they began to treat you, our customers, well. (This synergy exists to this day, and is reflected in our customer satisfaction survey results ? where our employees receive positive ratings of 95 percent to 98 percent.)

So where do we stand after 30 years?

As I write this, we are the busiest commuter railroad in the nation (our ridership has almost doubled since our inception), one that is internationally recognized for excellence, with a systemwide on-time performance currently at 97.5 percent.

Your opinion of us, the only one that counts, as reflected by our customer satisfaction survey, indicates that a record 93 percent of you are satisfied with our service.

Most important, Metro-North has gone from being known as an almost unessential railroad that “could be replaced by buses” to one that is considered crucial to the region’s economic vitality.

We carry Hudson Valley and Connecticut residents to the crucial New York City job market.

And we now take New York City residents to employment opportunities in suburban employment centers, spurring economic development in proximity to our train stations and within your communities.

What all these accomplishments reflect is the commitment our employees have to you, and how much a motivated group of individuals can achieve in a mere three decades.

In good times and in bad ? whether we are meeting the routine daily challenges of running the railroad or working around the clock restoring service after cataclysmic events such as "Superstorm Sandy" – our focus has never wavered.

It has always been, and will always be, on you, our customers.

Thank you for your patronage over the past three decades. We look forward to serving you for many more.

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