The president of the Metro-North Railroad, Catherine Rinaldi, said that the commuter service is seeing a slow increase in ridership since the start of economic reopening in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown during which ridership had dropped by about 95%.
“When the Mid-Hudson reopened two weeks ago and now the city is starting to reopen our ridership is clawing its way back. But even after all of that we’re still down 90%,” Rinaldi said. “That 5% is not nothing. We’re happy to see things are moving in the other direction, but you can’t sugarcoat the fact that our ridership is still down 90%.”
In a video conference with Westchester County Executive George Latimer yesterday, Rinaldi said that for the past month the railroad has been on a daily cycle for disinfecting its trains, a change from the every-three-days cycle that initially was put into place.
“We’ve changed technologies, too. We’re not wiping down as much. We’re using sprayers; we’re looking at all kinds of innovative technologies to try to be able to keep the trains cleaner longer and make sure that they’re as disinfected as they can be,” Rinaldi said. “Part of getting the other 90% to come back is giving people the confidence that they’re going to have a safe experience.”
Rinaldi said that although the railroad cut back to hourly service when the outbreak was raging in the Metro New York area, they now are adding trains, putting on an additional 19 trains during the first week of the phased economic reopening.
“We’ve been layering some additional trains in just as we see demand,” Rinaldi said. “One of the things we’re keeping an especially close eye on is the reverse peak. One of the things we have that really distinguishes Metro-North is we have a lot of people get on the train at stations in the city in the morning, so stations like Fordham, Woodlawn, whatever, and they’re traveling north or traveling east to job opportunities in White Plains or New Rochelle or across the state line in Greenwich or Stamford. We’ve seen that ridership pick up quite a bit. We added a train just earlier this week to be able to respond to that demand.”
Rinaldi said that beginning June 14, there will be a significant schedule change.
“You’ll really see the change Monday morning and what we’re doing there is significantly increasing our peak hour service because that’s when people are traveling, going to work. We’re adding a significant increase – 115% increase over the hourly schedule, that’s really focused on the AM peak and PM peak so people can get to and from work safely,” Rinaldi said. “We’re basically leaving the rest of the schedule alone because we’re not really seeing a lot of people ride off-peak hours. We call that discretionary travel. You don’t really have people taking the train to go to a restaurant or go to a show anymore. They’re just not during those off-hours.”
Rinaldi said that during the slowdown due to the pandemic work has continued on the project to develop direct service for Metro-North riders into Penn Station as well as on station rehabilitation projects, such as the one in White Plains, which is Metro-North’s third-busiest station after Grand Central Terminal and Stamford.
“I was over there about 10 days ago now and, you can’t sugarcoat that either; it’s a mess. But, it’s a mess because there’s so much going on,” Rinaldi said. “We demolished the northbound platform, we’re extending the platforms, we’re doing all this work in the lobby, we’re putting in a new elevator, so under the circumstances it’s almost a good thing we have fewer riders because you have fewer people being impacted by how extensive the station renovation project is in White Plains, but that’s going to be done by the end of the year.”
Rinaldi told Latimer that her colleagues at other transit systems around the country have found that their systems experienced the same dramatic declines in ridership when businesses were shut down and now, like Metro-North, they are working to entice people back.
“That’s certainly a universal experience,” Rinaldi said. “We’ve also had the ability to collaborate with other properties and see what they’re doing in terms of cleaning and innovative technologies, that sort of thing. So, there’s a lot of sharing, learning going on. This is not anything we’ve ever seen before. If there’s another wave in the fall, how can we be better prepared? I think there’s a lot of learning that needs to happen.”