Metro-North tracks were inspected two days before crash

This story was revised May 22 to include additional information on the timing of track inspections.

Washington — The Metropolitan Transportation Authority inspected the tracks involved in Friday’s derailment two days before the collision that left dozens injured, the Federal Railroad Administration said Monday.

But a more rigorous federal inspection of the track had not been conducted in more than a year and a half. 

Also Monday, Gil Carmichael, a former administrator of the federal rail administration, said he is surprised that such a heavily used rail corridor wasn’t inspected by the FRA more often.

“That doesn’t sound right,” Carmichael said. “As busy as that route is, it should have been looked at more often.”

The official cause of the crash is unknown and likely to remain so for months while federal investigators complete their work. But a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, Earl Weener, has said that a broken rail is of substantial interest to investigators and that a portion of the track has been sent to a laboratory for analysis.

The tracks are owned by the state of Connecticut, but New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is responsible for maintaining and inspecting them.

The MTA did a rigorous inspection of the Metro-North tracks involved in last week’s collision in April 2013 as well as a visual inspection Wednesday, May 15,  according to a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. But the results of these inspections — and of all other recent inspections — are now in the hands of the NTSB.

MTA spokeswoman Marjorie Anders declined to comment on that inspection or on “anything involving the (NTSB) investigation.”

Carmichael, the former head of the FRA, said, “it’s obvious something was missed” when the MTA looked at the tracks last week.

On Monday, the MTA released a statement indicating that it would step up its inspections.

“The FRA conducts routine monitoring, inspections and audits of our practices and has taken no exceptions,” the MTA statement said. “Since Friday, we have taken extra precautions, including additional track inspections, and will increase this effort going forward.”

Although the MTA said federal inspections are routine, the last time the FRA inspected the track was in October 2011, more than a  year and a half ago. At the time, the FRA used a track geometry vehicle, which calculates position, curvature and alignment of the track. 

An FRA official, who spoke on background, also said there was a “track-related Roadway Worker Protection inspection” of the segment involved in the crash in April 2012.  But that inspection was more concerned with worker safety issues than track integrity.

The Metro-North track in Connecticut was rated Class 4, said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. On a Class 4 track, trains are permitted to travel at a maximum speed of 80 mph. Weener said the trains were traveling about 70 mph when the collision occurred.

Class 4 tracks are required, by federal law, to be inspected at least twice weekly. 

According to FRA safety records, Metro-North reported 233 “incidents” —  which could be anything from someone wandering onto a track  to a head-on collision — and 11 train accidents last year. Those accidents included a collision and four derailments. The FRA said Metro-North carried 81.3 million passengers last year.

In contrast, the Long Island Railroad, which carries about the same number of passengers — 81.7 million — reported 613 incidents, but just six train accidents.

Robert Halstead of Syracuse, N.Y.-based IronWorks Technology, an expert on railroads and train tracks, said it’s hard to cull true safely information from Federal Railroad Administration records because most accidents and incidents are self-reported.

“Very little is subject to outside scrutiny,” he said.