Longtime stairway shutdown on Metro-North line raises charges of ignoring hospital workers

"I can’t see this going on in more affluent communities such as Hartsdale or Scarsdale for as long as it has.” - Edward Valente, the general chairman of the ACRE local that represents conductors

Thomas C. Zambito
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

The stairway for the northbound platform at Metro-North’s Williams Bridge station in the Bronx shut down in early January after workers discovered structural issues that rendered it unsafe.

As a result, northbound trains don't stop at Williams Bridge, forcing commuters to take alternate routes.

It’s a daily inconvenience that adds time – and money – to the daily commute.

The entrance for the northbound Metro-North train platform at Williams Bridge is blocked off for repair, as pictured March 25, 2021.

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And Metro-North’s conductors, who’ve listened to riders vent about the stairway shutdown for months, are upset the railroad hasn’t resolved the issue. They say the fix likely would have gotten done already if the station was in Westchester County, not the Bronx.

“Metro-North should have paid more attention to fixing that station just like they would with any other station,” said Edward Valente, the general chairman of the ACRE local that represents conductors. “It’s a disservice to the community at Williams Bridge to have them have to sit on the train one extra stop and inconvenience them to take a bus or a train backwards…I can’t see this going on in more affluent communities such as Hartsdale or Scarsdale for as long as it has.”

Metro-North says the stairway will have a temporary fix in the coming weeks while they hire a contractor to build a new stairway.

“We are moving forward as quickly as possible to restore access to the northbound platform at Williams Bridge by building a temporary aluminum staircase that will be completed this spring,” Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan said. “We apologize for the inconvenience while we work to expedite this.”

Morning commuters traveling northbound, wait for the 6:17 a.m. Metro-North train at the Fordham train station, March 25, 2021.

In the meantime, commuters traveling from the south who want to get off at Williams Bridge must go one station north and ride back one stop. And commuters who typically get on at Williams Bridge must go one stop south to get a train heading north into Westchester County and beyond.

The stairway shutdown at Williams Bridge has become part of a deeper rift between Metro-North, its largest union and state lawmakers from the Bronx concerned the railroad is overlooking some of its most reliable riders.

Metro-North president Cathy Rinaldi rejected suggestions the railroad fails to consider the needs of its Bronx riders, many of whom take the train up to stops in White Plains from Fordham.

"Metro-North proudly serves the Bronx and has made significant capital investments there," Rinaldi said. "For ACRE to insinuate otherwise, with absolutely no basis in fact, is inflammatory, irresponsible and deeply disappointing."

She said the railroad has made several improvements to service and stations in the Bronx in recent years. The railroad renovated Fordham station, built a new station at Yankees-East 153rd Street, doubled service to Melrose and Tremont and ended a policy that prohibited New Haven Line service between Fordham and Manhattan, she said.

And there are plans to build four stations in the Bronx with service to Penn Station.

Metro-North's reverse commuters -- those who take the train out of New York City into the suburbs -- have been some of the railroad's most dependable riders during the pandemic. Many are healthcare workers are heading up to hospitals in Westchester County from the Bronx.

A Metro-North ridership survey released in the fall showed that the percentage of rides by customers who work in the healthcare industry nearly tripled to around 20 percent during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Metro-North’s Manhattan-bound commuters – workers in the financial and professional sectors -- mostly abandoned the railroad during the pandemic, contributing to unprecedented ridership dips and revenue shortfalls at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that required a federal bailout.

The percentage of rides by workers in the financial services field dipped to 11 percent from 27 percent, while many worked from home, the survey showed.

Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, a Democrat whose East Harlem district includes the East 125th St. station, says constituents have been telling him that morning and evening rush hour trains are getting busier, making it more difficult to keep a social distance.

The entrance for the northbound Metro-North train platform at Williams Bridge is blocked off for repair, as pictured March 25, 2021.

“There are concerns about social distancing on some of the trains and, in particular for our home healthcare workers who operate in New Rochelle and Yonkers coming in and out,” Rodriguez said. “It’s been more of a challenge. And that’s what we’re worried about…. The morning and evening rush is picking up.”

Rodriguez said his information so far is anecdotal and he’s working with ridership groups to gather up more detail.

Assemblyman Victor Pichardo’s district includes the Fordham station in the Bronx where healthcare workers board trains for Westchester County.

“They rely on the Metro-North stations to get to the major hospitals,” said Pichardo, a Democrat.  “Even when crowd sizes were really small it was an issue of dependability and reliability on trains. Buses can only do so much to mitigate the delays.”

And, Pichardo says, station breakdowns are slow to get fixed.

“What we’ve been hearing is that when something goes down on these trains, especially on the stops they just take so long to repair,” Pichardo says. “And it speaks to a lot of other things that unfortunately have plagued the Bronx for a very long time.”

Pichardo says the federal government needs to step in with funding to improve transportation infrastructure.

Metro-North says upgrades to the Williams Bridge station include the addition of elevators to make the station wheelchair accessible. Those upgrades were put on hold because of uncertainty over revenues at the MTA, officials say.

The temporary stairs will occupy the same footprint as the downed stairs, connecting the north sidewalk of the Gun Hill Road overpass to the northbound platform and the south sidewalk to the southbound platform. A new stairway will also be added to the southbound platform.

Metro-North has resisted union calls to increase service to pre-pandemic levels. And in June, a federal judge dismissed an ACRE lawsuit that called on the railroad to return to a full schedule, especially in heavily-traveled areas of the Bronx.

The entrance for the northbound Metro-North train platform at Williams Bridge is blocked off for repair, as pictured March 25, 2021.

This week, ridership was down nearly 70 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

The railroad suggested the union’s gripes had more to do with its unhappiness with losing out on overtime while the railroad ran limited service.

Rinaldi said she continues to monitor daily ridership levels and has added trains to prevent overcrowding on trains that come through the Bronx.

“I continue to think we need to be nimble to be able to respond to trends that we’re seeing out there,” Rinaldi said last month. “And if I’m right, and I hope I’m right , that we start to see ridership come back in a meaningful way as businesses start to reopen, as more people are vaccinated and feel a little more comfortable about riding, we’ll adjust our service levels accordingly. The level of service we’re currently running based upon what we’re seeing out there Is OK for purposes of social distancing and serving the people who are still riding with us."