Washington – Sen. Richard Blumenthal was a surprise witness Wednesday at a House hearing aimed at improving rail safety that served as a forum to discuss Metro-North’s problems.
Connecticut’s Democratic senior senator, who has led a campaign against accident-prone Metro-North, was asked to testify at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing because Senate leaders Wednesday gave him the chairmanship to a key subcommittee.
Blumenthal now chairs the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on surface transportation, which has jurisdiction over several federal agencies, including the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
“My appearance is my first official act as chairman of the subcommittee,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal told members of the panel that more federal money to shore up railroad infrastructure is needed as well as “leadership and responsibility.”
“We must think big and act big with a sense of urgency,” Blumenthal said.
But one of Blumenthal’s safety recommendation, the installation of inward and outward facing cameras on every rail car, was sharply criticized by John Tolman, a lobbyist for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Railmen.
“It seems to have become fashionable in some quarters to call for the installation of inward-facing cameras in the cabs of all locomotives, as a way to prevent railroad accidents and cure a host of other ills,” Tolman said. “However it is absurd to suggest that inward facing cameras as a tool to reduce fatigue.”
A sleeping conductor may have been the cause of a Metro-North crash in the Bronx that resulted it the railroad’s first fatalities. But Tolman said, “Cameras are merely ‘feel good’ devices, which won’t improve railroad safety one whit at the end of the day.”
Although there were no witnesses from Metro-North, the troubled railroad company was the focus of much of the discussion, and it was one of the reasons for the hearing.
A Metro-North train derailed near Bridgeport last May, injuring dozens, and a railroad foreman was killed days later on the tracks near the New Haven station.
The Dec. 1, 2013, Bronx crash killed four passengers and injured more than 70. In January, maintenance on a signal control system resulted in a service disruption that left Metro-North commuters stranded at stations or stuck on trains for two hours.
The incidents have resulted in four National Transportation Safety Board investigations and the retirement of Metro-North President Howard Permut. Joe Giullietti has replaced Permut.
The rash of accidents has also prompted the FRA to implement “Operation Deep Dive,” an intense investigation of Metro-North operations. The results of that investigation, which are likely to result in new safety standards, are expected in March.
The NTSB did not wait to finish its investigations to issue recommendations, which include the installation of cameras on trains, new signals and more speed restriction signs.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said the hearing was “a matter of incredible importance for the people of Connecticut.”
But Esty said recent changes in Metro-North performance “has resulted in a drop off of on-time performance and passengers.”
“Passenger rail has to be both safe and reliable,” Esty said.
She also urged FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo to hurry the release of the Operation Deep Dive report so the Connecticut legislature could react to its recommendations.
Szabo said the “culture” of Metro-North is changing. He said the railroad is open to implementing a Confidential Close Call system, an FRA-sponsored program that allows railroad carriers and their employees to report close calls in complete confidence.
“I was actually pretty frustrated back in May when I first approached Metro-North,” Szabo said. “They just didn’t seem to get it.”