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St. Louis, Mo., Transit Disrupted by Weekend Cyber Attack

Rides on the region's paratransit van service Call-A-Ride were canceled early Saturday after a cyber attack on Metro Transit left the agency unable to contact customers or access the scheduling system.

(TNS) — Weekend rides on the region's paratransit van service Call-A-Ride were canceled early Saturday after a cyberattack on Metro Transit left the agency unable to contact customers or access the scheduling system.

It was the second time this week that a cyberattack disrupted Call-A-Ride after an attack Oct. 2 led Metro's IT teams to freeze the agency's systems to protect them and to deny access to critical information. Call-A-Ride, which provides transport for passengers with disabilities in St. Louis and St. Louis County, experienced delays afterward.

But the cancelation Saturday left riders waiting for vans that never showed for scheduled rides to jobs or other appointments. Many had reserved rides days in advance to get to FestAbility, an annual one-day disability pride festival Saturday at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

"It's very disappointing and very frustrating," said Anette Nowakowski, 69, of St. Louis, who said she missed the festival because her Call-A-Ride never showed up. "This is a big festival for us, a time for us to talk about education, advocacy and empowerment and learn for each other and be visible. We want the public to know who we are and that we are able and capable people.

"This just ruins it for us."

The cancelation also renewed longstanding criticisms of Call-A-Ride services from disability rights advocates, who questioned why Metro didn't have a backup plan to contact customers or offer alternative transport.

Call-A-Ride was the subject of formal complaints to the federal government earlier this year filed by disability rights advocates. Last spring, Metro eliminated service for some areas in north, south and west St. Louis County to help deal with a chronic shortage of drivers.

The cuts left many Call-A-Ride passengers without a reliable transport to get to their jobs, buy groceries and visit doctors, Sara Schwegel, FestAbility president, said Saturday. And riders have had to call at least three days in advance in order to secure a reservation.

"While we understand that Metro can't really do anything about a cyber hack, this was an added disappointment on top of the lack of adequate services," she said.

Metro said Saturday that IT teams detected an "additional cybersecurity event" early in the morning. A Metro spokeswoman declined to release more details but said the agency was working to restore its computer and phone networks and would update customers on its progress.

MetroLink and buses continued to operate as normal Saturday, but ticket vending machines were only able to take cash payments.

The cyber attack against Metro also appeared to have downed the agency's email network. A Metro news release Saturday was distributed by a third-party public relations firm that said Metro's own email system wasn't operating.

Schwegel estimated at least 100 attendees were unable to make it to the festival because of the Call-A-Ride disruption.

Nowakowski's ride was scheduled for 7:16 a.m. No van ever showed up, and she was never able to reach Metro customer service to find out why. She was unaware the agency had said the service was under cyber attack until contacted by a reporter.

She said Metro should have had a backup system in place to reach customers. Private ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft are costly to rely on and don't include features accommodating of people with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs, Nowakowski said.

Many riders rely on Call-A-Ride, which costs $2 for a one-way ride, to get to doctors' appointments and home safely.

"This is a critical health and safety issue," said Nowakowski, who has used Call-A-Ride since 2010. "They have to have some backup. We don't know how many hundreds of people had rides today who don't know what's going on."

Raven McFadden, a FestAbility organizer, nearly missed the event because of the Call-A-Ride disruption.

McFadden, who uses a motorized wheelchair, woke up at 7 a.m. to call Metro to confirm her reserved Call-A-Ride to the festival would pick her up from her home in University City. But she couldn't reach anyone, and by 11 a.m. realized she need to find a backup ride, which she found with FestAbility President Sarah Schwegel, whose family has a van that accommodates wheelchairs.

"Luckily I had a backup," said McFadden, 30, who has used Call-A-Ride since childhood. "But many people weren't that lucky to have that option."

Robyn Wallen, with the Missouri Council of the Blind, said the organization was trying to help several members find rides home Sunday after they returned to St. Louis from a state convention in Springfield.

"This puts a lot of stress on people when they're out of town and they think they have everything worked out and then something like this happens," said Wallen, who chairs the council's transportation committee.

"While I know this was a cyber attack, Metro should have had contingencies in place and their system should have had a lot more backups."

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