Feds say Metro-North put on-time performance before safety

Washington –The Metro-North commuter railroad put on-time performance before concerns about safety or adequate training programs, the Federal Railroad Administration has found in a report released today.

“Metro-North has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure,” says the report. Dubbed “Operation Deep Dive,” the 60-day investigation began in mid-December, about two weeks after a fatal derailment in the Bronx and serious accidents last summer that killed two people, injured scores and disrupted service for days.

FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo  said maintenance and other safety measures were pushed to the side in Metro-North’s efforts to make its trains run on time. “You stayed away from anything that might delay operations,” Szabo said.

The report terms its findings “a severe assessment…  intended as an urgent call to action to Metro-North’s leadership…”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called the report “a searing indictment” of Metro-North’s safety operations. “The takeaway is not that Metro-North cared too much about on-time performance, it’s that it cared too little about safety,” Blumenthal said.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, called Operation Deep Dive’s conclusions a “damning indictment” of the railroad, which has suffered a rash of accidents in the past year.

Besides the derailment near Spuyten Duyvil Station in the Bronx that killed four people and injured  70 others, there was a Metro-North crash near Bridgeport last May that injured about 50 people.

Also in May, a foreman who was working on the tracks near the West Haven station was killed by an oncoming train.

In July, a freight train derailed while traveling on Metro-North’s system.

And just this week, on Monday, a Metro-North train killed an employee working on a heavily used  stretch of tracks in Harlem.

Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti, who recently took the helm of the troubled railroad, vowed to “address the specific issues the FRA has identified.”

“The report that you’ve seen is deeply troubling and it raises real concerns,” he said at a press conference Friday in New York’s Grand Central Station .”The issues that were uncovered at the time confirm my initial assessment of Metro-North’s culture and priority.”

Gov. Dannel Malloy, whose staff was briefed on the report, quickly issued a statement in reaction: “I expect, and indeed senior management has assured me, that Metro-North will focus on restoration of the highest quality, safe service in the industry and restore the New Haven to a “best-in-class” railroad.  That’s what the customers and taxpayers from Connecticut deserve.”

Szabo said the FRA held daily meetings with Metro-North executives during the investigation.

“We did not wait until the report [was finished] to come out with recommendations,” he said.

The FRA will continue to hold meetings with Metro-North every 30 days. In addition, the FRA required the railroad submit a report by May 17 that addresses all the deficiencies uncovered in Operation Deep Dive, including:

  • Inadequate supervision of the track program and inadequate training of track inspectors
  • A lack of time available to complete track inspections or repair
  • Failure to train testing officers on how to conduct operational testing
  • failure to  review its operational testing and accident data every six months
  • Failure to  create a “positive and productive environment that encourages safe operations”
  • Noncompliance with blue signal protection regulations that prevent access to sections of track while employees are working on track maintenance
  • No policy on employee use of cell phone, which causes “confusion.”

Blumenthal, who has recently been given the chairmanship of a Senate Commerce Committee panel with authority over  the nation’s railroads, said he will hold a series of hearings to monitor Metro-North’s safety practices.

He also said federal agencies like the FRA have been lax in their oversight of railroads and would also hold hearings “ to impose accountability on federal watchdogs that perhaps have been less vigilant than they need be.”

Blumenthal  also criticized the Deep Dive report because it was “silent” on a series of safety recommendation the senator is pressing for, including cameras in rail cars, a confidentiality program that would protect whistleblowers, and an “alerter” system that would stop trains when there was someone on the tracks.

The National Safety Transportation Board has five open investigations into Metro-North — a record tied only by Washington D.C. Metro system that suffered  a string of accidents several years ago.

The results of the NTSB investigations, expected in November, will  give the official reasons for Metro-North’s accidents and include recommendations.

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