Connecticut on the hook for Metro-North derailment costs

Revised July 3, 2013, 11 a.m.

Washington -– While there’s no official assessment of blame for May’s Metro-North commuter train derailment in Bridgeport, one thing is sure: Connecticut taxpayers will pay for it.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North and the state of Connecticut entered into an agreement in 1985 to share the cost of maintaining and operating the Metro-North’s commuter service.

The reason: In a unique situation, Connecticut owns the tracks the busy commuter rail service uses to shuttle passengers from Connecticut to New York and back.

The agreement means Connecticut pays 65 percent of maintaining and repairing the tracks, and Metro-North pays 35 percent.

Under the agreement, other operational costs are split, too, including the costs arising from damage and claims.

The May 17 crash of two Metro-North trains injured 75 people. In a preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency investigating the crash, said the accident caused $18 million in damages, an estimate that is expected to increase.

There are also new post-crash expenses related to improving the tracks.

Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan said a final determination of those costs has not been made, but the state is receiving a running tally.

“We routinely share cost information with the Connecticut Department of Transportation, especially when the expense is extraordinary or not previously budgeted,” Donovan said. 

The accident is likely to cost millions of dollars more in lawsuits filed by injured passengers. The state of Connecticut isn’t likely to be sued because the agreement holds Metro-North responsible for maintaining and repairing the track and all other equipment. Metro-North would be liable for any negligence that could have contributed to the accident.

The agreement requires Connecticut to pay a share of the cost of any lawsuit, even if the state is blameless in the accident. It’s too early to tell how much of the Metro-North crash expenses Connecticut will pay.

“The costs are being reviewed,” said Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick. “I can’t specify at this point who will be paying for what.”

Some of the costs may be borne by insurance. Metro-North, which is required to hold a policy, has one with a $25 million deductible and a $100 million cap. The policy does not cover costs from physical damage caused by the crash. 

And a railroad company attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said insurers usually fight paying claims that involve gross negligence.

That’s the accusation several Connecticut attorneys are leveling at Metro-North.

Michael Stratton, who represents the most severely injured passenger in the crash, said Metro-North should have immediately fixed a segment of the track that was found to have a problem during a routine inspection two days before the accident.

The report from that inspection said a joint bar holding two sections of tracks together at the site of the derailment was not supported by ballast, indicating “the ties and the rail were unsupported.”

Metro-North says the problem was not severe enough to require immediate attention.

But Stratton is sure the damaged track contributed to the accident.

He said at this point “everything is locked down” by the NTSB, and he and other lawyers representing crash victims are having trouble obtaining the information they need.

But Stratton said he has witnesses who rode the commuter train a week before and felt a “shuddering of the train” at the site of the accident that stopped the train for 20 or 30 minutes.

Another possible lawsuit looms from the death of a Metro-North foreman, who was killed by a train as he was working on the track near the West Haven station about a week after the derailment. 

It will take the NTSB months to complete its reports on both incidents and issue a final determination on what caused them.

The good news for Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration is that any settlements or judgments resulting from the Metro-North incidents aren’t likely to be paid out for years, leaving that problem to a later administration.

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