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John Hartwell Has Been Working On The Railroad

John Hartwell knows trains.

A longtime — and satisfied — commuter from Dobbs Ferry on Metro-North‘s Hudson Line, he was chagrined to find, after moving to suburban Boston, dirty trains without platforms, stations or parking.

The New Haven Line does have platforms, stations and (limited) parking. There are some new (lower capacity) (sometimes unheated) rail cars. Metro-North has slipped a notch or three from its better days.

And though Hartwell — who long ago moved from Massachusetts to Westport — is no longer a rail commuter, he plans to do something about the railroad mess.

In 2008 he ran for the State Senate. Transportation was a huge issue. He lost to Toni Boucher, but the next year earned an appointment to the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. Created by the state legislature, it’s an independent advocacy board for the Metro-North and Shore Line East railroads. When the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line is operational, that will be represented too.

During his 2008 campaign, John Hartwell (left) often met with commuters.

Hartwell — now the council’s vice chair — admits that his major concern at first was the railroad’s economic impact on Fairfield County. But he quickly realized that in addition to maximizing Metro-North’s assets, the railway needed plenty of work — at many levels.

The basic infrastructure — tracks, bridges, catenaries — is 100 years old. An upgrade will cost between $3 billion to $7 billion. But no one — not politicians or taxpayers — wants to pay for it.

Senators Blumenthal and Murphy want to help, Hartwell says. Yet both lack clout. Their very senior predecessors — Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman — “did virtually nothing.”

The railroad “is vital to the economy of Fairfield County, which is vital to the economy of the state,” Hartwell says. “But we always go begging, hat in hand. Hartford sees Fairfield County as an ATM. They want to get money from us, not give it to us.”

The Westport train station — one of many important stops on Metro-North.

Metro-North’s management is aging too. Formed 30 years ago from the ashes of Conrail, many of its top managers are retiring. Strong replacements don’t seem ready to take over, Hartwell claims.

“Clearly, Metro-North is failing,” he says. The woes of the past month — a 2-hour stoppage just east of the Westport station, in 2-degree weather; a long delay caused by human error that shut down the entire system — have just put a spotlight on a railroad that has been sliding downhill for a long time.

Trains run slower than in the past. There are fewer seats. “There’s a lot of frustration,” Hartwell notes.

He wants the Rail Commuter Council to establish “a much stronger relationship” with the state legislature than now exists. Local representatives Boucher and Gail Lavielle have been “very supportive,” Hartwell says. Many other legislators are far less receptive.

The Council has heard plenty of complaints. But they are always looking for constructive ideas. To voice your opinion directly, email

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