Authorities say human error during an electrical repair project caused Thursday night's two-hour service disruption on the Metro-North Railroad that left commuters stranded in jam-packed terminals and on trains.
The computers that run the railroad’s signal system lost power at 7:45 p.m. when one of two main supply units was taken out of service for replacement, according to MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast. Technicians performing the work didn't realize that a wire was disconnected on the other main power supply unit, which destabilized the power supply system for more than an hour until a backup supply could be connected, he said.
Prendergast said in a statement that the power failure was "unacceptable" and that "Metro-North customers deserve better."
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"I have directed Metro-North to bring in an independent consultant to examine how and why these mistakes were made, and to recommend any necessary changes to operating procedures to ensure nothing like this ever happens again," he said.
It was the latest in a series of woes for Metro-North. A day earlier, about 200 passengers on a train in Connecticut got stuck because of downed wires. They had no heat, water or lights.
The railroad has faced scrutiny from both government officials and commuters since a derailment killed four people in the Bronx last month.
When Ellen Albert got to Grand Central Terminal on Thursday evening at the tail end of the rush hour, the place was jammed and half of the train statuses on the schedule board read "waiting for announcement."
"You know when you walk in and you see crowds like that, something's bad," said Albert.
She managed to get onto a train, but it got stuck in a tunnel for 90 minutes before it finally returned to Grand Central. Albert, who works in commercial real estate, took a car service home to Pelham.
While the train was stranded, there were sporadic public address announcements, saying trains weren't moving and the system had crashed. She was upset that conductors didn't walk through with information, and fired off a message to Metro-North customer service with her phone.
The railroad, which issued "profound apologies" Friday, said conductors did their best to share whatever facts were known.
"Things happen. I get that," Albert conceded despite her anger. "We did have heat and lights."
"Pay more, get less," complained William Castro of Pelham, an accessories designer, who also was stranded in a tunnel on Thursday night. "The good thing was, I could see another train stopped on another track. Another sign of life."
Will McDonald of Cortlandt sat on a train for about 50 minutes that was supposed to go to Poughkeepsie. He said Metro-North employees told passengers to use their smartphones to access the Internet to find out what was going on. McDonald finally managed to get a ride from a friend; he got home at 11:30 p.m.
McDonald, speaking at Grand Central on Friday, said that after all that's happened lately, "confidence in the system is eroded."
Railroad spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the loss of electricity to computers that control the safe movement of trains "was an unprecedented event." She said the railroad has two power supplies and battery backup.
She said the "vast majority" of trains stopped at stations, but that was not always possible.
"We are especially apologetic to those people who were stopped at places other than stations," she said. "People can feel trapped. It's not a good feeling."
Metro-North serves about 280,000 riders a day in New York and Connecticut. Anders said Thursday night's outage affected "dozens of trains" and "thousands of people."