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Feds Slam Metro-North Railroad for Safety Failures

Feds Slam Metro-North Railroad for Safety Failures
A Metro-North commuter train derailed just north of the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx on Dec. 1, 2013.

By    |   Friday, 14 March 2014 11:39 AM

A scathing federal review released on Friday blasted Metro-North Railroad for creating a culture that prizes punctuality over rider and employee safety.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s “Operation Deep Dive” probe uncovered a wide-ranging litany of “safety-critical shortfalls” by management of the railway which runs from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan into New York City’s northern suburbs and Connecticut, including failing to give proper attention to needed repairs, training, and safety protocols.

“This is a severe assessment, and it’s meant as an urgent call to action to Metro-North’s leadership as they work to develop a comprehensive plan to turn Metro-North into a model of safe railroad operations,” the report said.

The 60-day investigation was triggered by the Dec. 1 derailment of a southbound Hudson Line passenger train as it neared the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx, killing four and injuring more than 50 other passengers.

The locomotive connected to seven passenger cars apparently did not slow down as it headed into a sharp turn while nearing the waterway separating the Bronx from Manhattan.

The engineer, William Rockefeller, said he nodded off, and there were no mechanical safeguards in place to halt a speeding train.

The December derailment was the latest in a string of troubling accidents on the commuter rail line.

Six months earlier, a freight train derailed on Metro-North tracks in the Bronx. In May there were two major accidents. On May 17 a train that derailed in Bridgeport, Conn., was struck by a train on the adjacent track, and on May 28, a Metro-North train hit and killed a track foreman in West Haven, Conn.

On Monday, James Romanoff, a 58-year-old Metro-North track worker from Yonkers, was killed by a train that had just left Grand Central Terminal and was headed north at 106th Street in Manhattan. That incident is currently under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

But New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who jointly requested the NTSB report along with Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, said the report “confirmed our worst fears,” and the string of accidents has caused lasting tarnish to Metro-North’s reputation.

“For decades, it was the crown jewel of commuter railroads in the country," Schumer said. “Everyone looked to Metro-North. Has the culture of safety declined so dramatically that we need significant revisions here?”

That is exactly what the federal review revealed.

In its investigation of the 2013 incidents, the NTSB found inadequate training of track inspectors and faulted the “general state” of track maintenance. The operations control center included “no sound barriers between the controllers or chief dispatchers,” increasing the risk of distraction, the report said.

Safety briefings were poorly attended, one of many “obvious signs of a weak safety culture,” it said. The review also found that Metro-North workers widely believed that on-time performance was “the most important" criterion.

The NTSB has said that Metro-North has 60 days to submit a corrective action plan to improve its safety and training programs, among other reforms, a process which is already underway.

The December derailment prompted Howard R. Permut, president of Metro-North since 2008, to resign in January.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North has already initiated changes, notably the modification of its signal system to enforce speed limits at certain locations; a reduction of speed limits in some areas to eliminate situations in which the limit drops by more than 20 miles per hour; and the posting of speed limit signs at higher-risk curves.

In a statement, the railroad’s new president, Joseph J. Giulietti, said his administration “has performed an important review of Metro-North operations and recommended significant improvements.” He added that Metro-North was taking “aggressive actions to affirm that safety is the most important factor in railroad operations.”

Metro-North also has posted a pledge to customers on its website stating that it “is dedicated to delivering safe and reliable transportation. Our highest priority is to ensure customer safety.”

Anthony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association for Commuter Rail Employees, called the NTSB report an accurate reflection of the disengagement of the railroad's previous leadership and voiced support for the actions being taken by Giulietti since he took office on Feb. 10.

"Our former administration created a bloated bureaucracy at the top with pay raises and promotions, new job titles and took their eye off what's important running the railroad,” Bottalico told the Connecticut Post

“No railroad can survive or maintain itself when it forgets what made it great, especially during this delicate transition from such a massive experience drain," Bottalico added. "Our new president gets it and we are with him 150 percent on getting things back to where it should be. It will take time and much more oversight and education, but rest assured we will get there."

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A scathing federal review released on Friday blasted Metro-North Railroad for creating a culture that prizes punctuality over rider and employee safety.
Friday, 14 March 2014 11:39 AM
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