Service of No News is Not Good News

June 25th, 2015

Categories: Customer Care, Customer Service, Incompetence, Rail Travel, Transportation, Travel

Photo: dot.gov

Photo: dot.gov

In the time it took us to get home on the 7:06 from upstate NY Sunday night [normally 2 hours], we could have been in London. I don’t blame Metro-North for the downed tree on the tracks. It is culpable of having no emergency plan, exhibiting inertia in extremis, and providing neither communications/information nor safety for its passengers. Goodness knows what they would do if they had to deal with injuries.

Photo: ewashtenaw.org

Photo: ewashtenaw.org

We were whisked off two trains with no explanation other than that only one track was in service. The first train we were on was jammed. Most passengers had suitcases, dogs, cats, bicycles, and packages or some combination.

After the first passenger dumping, when a second train arrived, a trainload of disconcerted people piled in the closest doors. We ran on the platform with our suitcases toward the back where the cars were emptier and we could sit. With many still on the platform—us included–the nasal beeping noise warning that the doors are about to close rang out at its standard time. But the numbers of passengers to embark was many times the usual. The warning was the only sound. Where was a conductor to say: “Please move along quickly but don’t worry, we’ll wait for you all to get in.” Nowhere.

Settled in the second train we were soon shocked when a conductor announced that we must all exit the train at Pleasantville and take a bus to North White Plains. Still nobody said why.

yellow school busThere must have been 1,000 people pouring out of the station on to the street. Eventually we saw three traditional yellow school busses. The scene reminded me of exiting the train station in Venice to access water transportation. In Italy it was also crowded and unnerving but we didn’t wait long and soon we, and our suitcases, were on board a vaporetto.

We confronted a very different situation in Pleasantville. Like Cinderella’s sisters—remember they tried to squeeze their huge feet into the diminutive slipper–hundreds surrounded each bus with hopes that they’d be one of the 45 adults to make it inside. It was survival of the fittest, strongest, pushiest and youngest. Friends who exited the station from a different place reported a woman pulled a man off a bus by yanking at his leg. One said, “I can still see a woman pushing her bicycle onto the bus. She was the first on and there was no room for the bike.”

Between our luggage and the ridiculous, frantic crowds we weren’t going near the mobs to try to get on. A vest like this--not this person. Photo: article.wn.com

I approached a man with a florescent orange vest with RR logo [like the vest in the photo from wn.com, at right–not this person] who was texting in the shadows behind the crowd. I asked what the backup plan was as clearly we weren’t fitting on a bus. He said there were four busses [we’d seen only three] and that it takes 25 minutes to drive to North White Plains. Half an hour later a fourth school bus arrived causing another riot scene. That one left with every inch of space filled with people—even in the aisles–which looked dangerous. The other drivers took the maximum permitted and didn’t leave the station until the aisles were empty. The crowd had become more frustrated by this time and this driver didn’t fight it. 

We spoke with the only police officer we saw. He knew—and did—nothing but said: “I’m here to make sure you don’t kill one another,” and then he walked away. He wasn’t near the mobs.

 vintage train setIn all this time not a chirp from Metro-North. We wanted to know if a crew was working to remove the tree, if someone was scouting up grownup busses with room in the belly for suitcases—anything official. Passengers continued to spill out of trains from up north to face scant transportation with us.

After an hour+ our friend John stormed into the station and down the stairs to the platform followed by Bob and us. He said it was clear that the only way we’d get back to the city was by train. Guess what we found: A train with people pouring out of it because it was changing direction and was now heading to Grand Central. There had been no announcement to alert the passengers upstairs.

I’ve enjoyed and depended on the railroad in many countries as well as here. I am fond of many of the conductors who take our tickets on the Harlem Line. Yet I feel ashamed that a major source of transportation in the NY metro area is as backward and unprepared as this line was on Sunday.

Why:

  • Would the RR accept more passengers from other stations when it couldn’t deal with those already waiting for busses in Pleasantville?
  • No megaphone or intercom updates from headquarters or the employee on location?
  • No local authorities to organize the passengers so we’d have a safe, fair way to get on a bus in a civilized manner?

And, how well could this crew handle a derailment with injuries or other emergency?

Photo: iridetheharlemline.com

Photo: iridetheharlemline.com

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15 Responses to “Service of No News is Not Good News”

  1. David Reich Said:

    As I read this, I am sitting near Gate C24 at LaGuardia, awaiting a flight to Charlotte NC. All the electronic signs list the flight departing from C24 on time at 11:10 a.m. But C24 is about to board passengers for a Kansas City flight, scheduleled for 5 minutes before my flight from the same gate. A text I got from Delta said my flight was from C29, in the next wing of the terminal. So I dragged myself and my bag over there, but that gate had a flight going to Richmond. No one here knows where (or when) the flight departs for Charlotte. So I wait at a table equipped with a free iPad that doesn’t work. Fun.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    You appear so calm so on your behalf I’m outraged.

    These travel organizations are taking the knowledge is power approach to extremes and to their customers’ disadvantage. In both our cases, we have little choice. I suppose you could have started your trip to Charlotte by car last night and arrived, from your home, 11.5 hours later at 65mph on average. [I looked it up.] And we could park at a garage in the city and pay $600/month rent [there is no parking on streets where we live] plus gas plus wear/tear on the car and us and drive back and forth from upstate instead of taking the train but in reality, we are both stuck.

    I can think of no solution though I wish you a safe trip.

  3. David Reich Said:

    No, I’m furious… Not for the delay, but for lack of info. I’ve been hassling the Delta people to get them to make some sort of announcement, and soon I’m going to demand they pay for my lunch here. Too long a story to tell now, but total breakdown in customer service

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    Without information you could be waiting in line for a sandwich, not hear a mumbled announcement or be too far away from the right gate and miss the flight. Infuriating, frustrating and wrong to the point of abuse.

    I look forward to eventually hearing the rest of the story. GOOD LUCK.

  5. SEPTIMIUS Said:

    Back in the thirties, when liberals complained about the excesses of Mussolini’s fascism, the apologists would always respond, “But he made the trains run on time.”

    The situation you described was far more dangerous than you realize. When I worked abroad, I twice saw first hand rioting mobs get out of hand and people killed as a consequence. I’ve also had professional training in crowd control. I guarantee you that that there is no automated way to deal with a milling mass of anxious, angry people without using trained human resources to inform, calm and defuse the danger.

    But even if people had been killed, nobody would have done anything about it, anymore than Delta will do anything about the airport mess Mr. Reich described. Transportation is a labor intensive business, and labor costs money. Neither the passengers, nor the taxpayers are willing to pay up, the former because they are used to cheap or subsidized tickets, the latter because if they raise taxes, they will be voted out of offices. Industry’s answer is further automation to save money. You can’t blame them, they want to stay in business, and without additional revenues, the only way to do that is to cut costs, especially the cost of labor — just the opposite of what the industry needs most, that is more people to provide better safety and better service.

    It is paradoxical that at the same time, we continue to subsidize travel by automobile with cheap cars and cheap gas, that is, compared to Europe, but more people are in love with their cars than want good public transportation. That is not going to change and our lawmakers know it.

    Yes, a dictator could fix Metro North and Delta, but is it worth living in a police state to have them fixed?

  6. Lee Said:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jeanne, but after commuting for over 30 years on MetroNorth, nothing surprises me much anymore

  7. Deborah Brown Said:

    I think you should send a shortened, edited version to the President of Metro North with a copy to the NYT, Daily News, CBS, NBC, ABC, etc. I would include bullet points of what they must do to improve immediately their communication systems to passengers, what their emergency plans are to respond to situations as you described, etc.

    As I read your blog, I could only imagine if the tree had indeed fallen upon the train and there were injured people. What if there had been double the number of people stranded, etc. How would people with canes or crutches make the transition from one train to another, etc. In this day and age, in the USA, it is unthinkable to me it sometimes feels like we live in a third world country.

    Best wishes and happy travels over the holiday weekend!

  8. David Reich Said:

    Just heard again from David. He again wrote from Laguardia Airport at 4:15. He’s been there since 9-something a.m. He “boarded a Delta flight at 1:43, after I received 3 different texts from Delta, each 2-5 minutes apart, saying the 1:43 would depart from three different gates. Got settled in, they closed the door and we waited. After a few minutes, the pilot came on the pa and said they had discovered a dent on the wing, and the plane would need to be checked further. So we got off the plane, as they canceled the flight.

    “Of course, it was a madhouse at the customer service desk, although I was impressed with how calm the agents were. But then again, their travel plans hadn’t been disrupted. One woman I spoke with was on the verge of tears because she was supposed to be in Charlotte for her niece’s 6:30 wedding.

    “Delta told me I could be on their next flight out at 9… tomorrow morning. ‘Unacceptable,’ I said. ‘You will get me to Charlotte tonight.’

    “The agent found a seat for me on a U.S. Air flight, going out from the same terminal at 6 tonight. So all is working out, at least so far.

    “My issue is not with the delays. Stuff happens. Planes break and need repair, weather slows things down, and computers go down. My issue is with the total failure to communicate with passengers No one, even after I asked, got on the PA to tell us anything, even if just to say there were delays and that they had no further information. They told us nothing.

    “Some information, some small niceties like offering everyone coffee or bottled water would have gone a long way in showing they really do care. A small and inexpensive gesture, along with some information, could have saved the day. Right now I’m looking at a bunch of people who, if they have the choice, will not choose Delta again.”

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:

    SEPTIMUS,

    True, labor costs money but someone was paying for the Metro-North staffer who was standing around saying and doing nothing and there had to be someone on the job near a mic to offer announcements on a PA system from headquarters or wherever this resource exists.

    Instead of strolling around looking for other local policemen the one we met might have asserted authority over the hoards around the bus, told the driver not to open the door until he could squeeze to the front of the line and then ask him to wait to open it until he had moved back the crowd. Next, he might have stood on the step of the bus and told people to form a line and treat them like children: Until he saw a line, nobody would enter the bus.

    We must find a happy medium between chaos and fascism. What happened at the train station and at Delta at LaGuardia where no information was shared is unacceptable.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lee,

    All I can say is “Oh, my.”

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Debby,

    Funny thing happened when this morning I began to do a version of what you suggest. I sent an email to two addresses a colleague shared to reach Governor Cuomo. Both bounced back. So I went on line and filled out a comments email to the Governor at https://www.governor.ny.gov/contact/GovernorContactForm.php and consistently got this message: “An unknown connection error occurred.” Sooooo I gave up and mailed the information to him. Speaking of controlling communication…

    I also sent info to Metro-North and expect the same formulaic response I always get.

    Reading what the 30 year commuter Lee wrote–he’s a realistic person and not a negative one–I fear that nothing will be done until an accident happens and people sue, but they will have lost precious limbs and life so what good that money?

    I know that there were people at Pleasantville station who were not in the best health–goodness knows how many I didn’t know. And there was nowhere to sit.

    I, too, thought about being in a third world country as the Sunday scene came into focus as did the reality that we were stuck and it made me sad. It’s so easy to communicate today and we have repeated examples that we are getting worse and worse at it.

    Back to the point: Silence, when you need information, can be a killer.

  12. Lucrezia Said:

    Not one but two trees fell on the tracks Sunday, one at Valhalla and a second at Katonah, a major cause being high winds. A harried and beset MTA person took time to explain that both unusually strong winds, along with ongoing root disturbance from passing trains caused the trees to fall. He added that serious damage was done to the tracks, and that every effort was being made to repair.

    I and a friend with a bum leg were attempting to reach Mount Kisco from Grand Central, and the incident forced passengers to detrain at North White Plains, and taking a bus to Pleasantville, followed by a train north. The usual 1 hour trip took about 5. Passengers were informed of the trouble before disembarking.

    The experience was an aggravating one, made more so by the paucity of school busses enlisted to haul passengers to respective destinations. Had those in charge in this respect been willing and/or able to commandeer a greater number of busses, there would have been fewer if any complaints in either direction. During the time we spent standing around, it became clear only four busses were in use on the South side of events. Since these vehicles haul thousands of school children around, there is no excuse for stinginess, and it appears that blame may be directed at the school districts (both North and South) than the MTA. The City of White Plains also has a sizeable bus fleet. Where were they?

    Considering the years these trains have been in operation, it is surprising we don’t experience more unavoidable inconveniences. The fact that it was Fathers Day and that many workers may have been off didn’t help.

    I’m no Pollyanna, and was annoyed at the time, since there’s no doubt things could have been handled better, but looking back, they could have been much worse. For one thing, I woke up Monday realizing that neither I nor my fellow passengers were neither injured nor dead.

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    I wish I could feel as positive as you and I hope that Metro-North takes this as a warning to create a plan for glitches over holidays/weekends/off peak periods as well as a communications program and that it doesn’t decide that because nobody was killed or injured Sunday was merely an inconvenience and no biggie.

    Sure, it could have been worse: Continued lightning storms as we had earlier upstate; overpowering heat, that we didn’t have, but that’s not the point of this post. David Reich’s experience at LaGuardia Airport at the Delta terminal served to underscore the stress, helplessness and anger felt by people who are disrespected, disregarded and ignored. Communicating with customers seems like an elementary request. The very first conductor in the first train we boarded understood: He apologized that he didn’t have more information to share because he knew that we needed that. It’s civilized.

  14. Lucrezia Said:

    The idea isn’t to be positive, but to be practical and to realize bad things happen no matter how hard one tries to prevent them. It’s very easy from my view of things to pontificate, and to declare displeasure over how things are run. Unless one is, or has been in charge of a huge organization, one has little to no idea of how things work, and it’s a great deal more than planning for the rare emergency. MTA trains are remarkable for timeliness, and that’s for starters. Some trains have “quiet cars” a boon to those of us who relish occasional silence. There are unions to deal with and a host of other matters, such as maintenance of equipment, sanitation and on into the night. It’s painfully easy to jump up and down and scream — but to run a multi faceted operation takes a vision that most of us don’t possess.

  15. Claire Coleman Said:

    All I can say is “oy” Life is too short for this!

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