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Hudson Valley News

Metro-North President Discusses Changes With The Mid-Hudson Reopening

MTA Metro-North Railroad President Catherine Rinaldi
Courtesy of MTA Metro-North Railroad

With the beginning of Phase One reopening in the Mid-Hudson Valley Tuesday, Metro-North began adding trains to its three lines east of the Hudson. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Metro-North instituted an Essential Service Plan, with hourly service seven days a week. Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi tells WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne that the railroad is now upping train capacity by 26 percent to meet expected increased demand.

Now what we are doing is layering an additional peak-hour service to be able to respond to you know, at least an anticipated uptick in ridership as more people start to return to work.

You've mentioned being nimble, was word use the last time that stuck with me and I imagine you're still going to have to be nimble to see what happens over the next several weeks as the various phases come about.

Yeah, we are. So we're obviously going to be counting people on trains, we have counters that are going to be deployed just to sort of see what the ridership starts to look like. What we're also looking at are daily ticket sales. At least you know, really since the pandemic hit, not that many people have been buying monthly tickets, so the daily ticket sales are a good indicator in terms of how quickly the ridership is coming back. It's a little early to see what the June monthlies are going to look like. It's still a little bit early in that cycle. But it'll be very interesting to see whether we get an uptick in the June monthly customers, that'll be a good indication that ridership is starting to come back.

Sure. And then, have you seen any change yet?

We have. I just actually got this information earlier this afternoon. So looking at those daily ticket sale numbers, if you look this Tuesday versus last Tuesday, we're up 17 percent, which is an increase of about, I am told, about 2,000 rides. You know, those absolute numbers are still quite small, given the volumes that we were looking at before the pandemic. But even so, I mean, you know, those numbers, they're real numbers. I'm more happy to see the ridership start to come back even slowly.

Can you translate that into a percentage I think when we spoke the last time you're talking about 90 to 95 percent ridership was down.

Yeah so when we bottomed out we were about 95 percent down. Now we're about 92 percent down so it's you know, as they were slowly climbing back but it is it is a meaningful number. So we're now down at 92 percent.

Okay, and then what about the protocol? Let's start with ticketing two months ago you're doing e-ticketing, 'no cash onboard.' Is that still the case?

Yeah, it is. I mean, we're very much encouraging our employees...excuse me, our customers, to the maximum extent possible, to use e-tickets. It's easier for them. It reduces the interaction with with our train crews. It's just a really, really good option during these times. We're still continuing the 'no cash on board.' And the other thing that obviously, you know, has been the case for a few weeks now is masks. Our employees are wearing masks and we require that our customers wear masks as well. You know, keeps everybody healthy. And the more we learn about the Coronavirus, the clearer it is that wearing masks is just the safest thing to do for everybody, so we are requiring our customers wear masks.

Is there signage?

Yeah, we're starting to put signage up. We have both physical signage as well as electronic signage. And our customers will be seeing more and more of that as they start to come back.

I mean, will the conductor have the ability to say, "You can't, you know, you can't come on board you don't have a mask on," or kind of go down the aisle and say, "Hey, where's your mask?"

Well, you know, enforcement is always one of those tricky things, but they will certainly tell the customers that they should be putting on a mask, there's no question. We will be urging our customers to put masks on if they're not wearing them. The one thing that I would say is that our mask compliance, or mask wearing compliance, up to this point has been really, really good. This has not been an issue. You know, everybody wants to travel safe. And this really has not been a concern. People have been very, very good about wearing their masks.

And because of the ridership having been down you know, spacing yourself apart from another customer has not been a problem. It sounds like it's still not, but is there going to be any any kind of protocol for that?

Well, I mean, it's obviously something that all the transportation providers around the world are looking at right. I mean, how do you promote social distancing in a public transportation setting, and it's absolutely something that the entire MTA is looking at. You know, as you say, now, it's not really a big deal. I mean, I was riding yesterday, there was plenty of space on the train. And it's, you know, it's going to be something that we're going to have to keep an eye on. And that's going to be one of the things that we're looking at when we look at bringing back service. I mean, as I indicated a little while ago, we are, you know, adding some trains into the a.m. peak and the p.m. peak to be able to accommodate those people who were starting to come back to work. And as more and more people start to come, if they do, we're going to have to potentially add more trains as a way of improving social distancing opportunities and keeping people as safe as possible.

Sure, I think a couple things that you and I discussed a couple months ago that I wanted to revisit now. One was of course cleaning protocol, which you went through and I think that it's always worth repeating and seeing if anything's changed in that regard.

We have, at some point over the past month or so, we increased the disinfecting intervals onboard our trains to daily. So we're currently doing that on a daily basis, in addition to like the regular cleaning that we would normally do, we're disinfecting daily. And we continue to disinfect our stations twice a day. So that's, you know, that's, you know, added steps that we took, you know, following the pandemic, and that we're going to be continuing.

And then I think also of staff. You know, they had to have their temperature taken before they went to work, so to speak, is all that still in place?

Yep. Yeah, the temperature taking actually is greatly expanded from the last time we spoke, I mean, we have it, you know, locations across our territory, because as you know, we stretch not only up the Hudson Valley, but all the way out to New Haven, Connecticut. So we have, you know, a very large operating territory and we've got temperatures being taken throughout the territory. And it's a program that we're ramping up and, you know, it's kind of a best-in-class practice and one that's the MTA as a whole has really adopted wholeheartedly so that we're doing the same. So that's one of the screening programs that's currently in effect that we'll be scaling up over the course of the next weeks.

And the other thing you and I spoke about is perhaps coming out of this, and not only transportation, but you name it, every sector on the, you know, on the planet might look a little different. We might see, you know, more permanent changes coming about. Do you have any sense of that?

Well, I mean, I think everybody is sort of kind of holding back and wondering what that's going to be. I mean, I think that there is, you know, some hope that, at least in the short term, people will still telecommute for a bit. I mean, I think we're waiting to see what major employers do. And some major employers have already indicated that they're going to allow their employees to telecommute through the end of the year. That's obviously going to have an impact on a lot of the things that we've been discussing: social distancing frequency, frequency of service. So I think this goes back to your nimbleness question, you know, which you asked a couple minutes ago. We're just going to have to wait and see. I mean, we're going to have to be prepared to act quickly. And you know, do what we need to do to be able to have the service be frequent enough to keep people safe. But, you know, we're just gonna have to keep an eye on things. I don't think anybody really knows yet how quickly the ridership is going to come back, and at what levels. I think we're all very interested to see what happens. I think we're all eager to see what happens. It's nice to feel like we're on the other side of this. And now we know how to do this. I mean, I think we know how to respond to crises and pull together as a company and get people from their homes, to their places of work and back in a safe way. And you know, this pandemic is not any different. We'll do the best we can to keep people safe.

The House of Representatives earlier in May passed the so-called HEROES Act, the next Coronavirus relief package. It contains an estimated $3.84 billion for the MTA.

We benefit when the MTA gets funding from the federal government because we're part of the MTA family. But those you know, sort of lobbying and advocacy efforts on behalf of the MTA are being handled by MTA headquarters. And I'm rooting them on because obviously, you know, we need the funding to be able to keep the system going through this unprecedented time. I mean, this is obviously like nothing we've ever experienced before. And we really need the help of the federal government to be able to bring the transportation system back. And you know, the transportation system is the lifeblood of the region. It's the lifeblood of the city. It's the lifeblood of the Hudson Valley. And we are going to need that kind of really concrete and substantial federal support to be able to bring the region back from this. This is a catastrophe. We've never really gone through anything like this before. And we're going to need this kind of funding to bring the region back in the way that we all want to see it come back.

Catherine Rinaldi is president of Metro North railroad. Reporting from WAMC's Hudson Valley Bureau on the campus of Vassar College. I'm Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne.

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