Sen. Richard Blumenthal

Washington –- A top federal transportation safety official said Wednesday that a damaged rail joint that Metro- North ignored could have contributed to the May 17 derailment near Bridgeport, but she stopped short of attributing blame or giving an official cause of the crash .

Citing an inspection report written by Metro-North workers two days before the crash, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said the joint bar that held two sections of tracks together was not supported by ballast, indicating “the ties and the rail were unsupported’” at the site of the derailment.

She also said the frequent running of Metro-North and other trains on the track put stress on the unsupported joint bar.

Yet Metro-North did not think the problem was severe enough to require immediate attention under federal law,  Hersman said.

Seventy-two people were injured in the accident, some of them severely.

Hersman was among several representatives of the railroad industry and federal rail safety agencies who testified at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Blumenthal pressed Hersman to say the unsupported joint bar “was very likely the cause of the derailment.”

But Herman declined to agree.

“You are entitled to that view,” she said. “But we want to make sure we gather all the facts.”

Hersman did agree with Blumenthal that the use of a $200 safety device would have prevented the death of Metro-North foreman Robert Luden, who was killed by a train  last month while working on the tracks near West Haven.

A shunt is a device crews can attach to the rails in a work zone that alerts the controller and gives approaching trains a stop signal.

The NTSB said on Monday that a student controller had turned off the track’s closed signal the day of the accident without the approval of track workers.

Metro-North was not able to respond to Blumenthal’s criticisms. Company spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the Senate committee did not invite Metro-North, or its parent company, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, to testify.

But there’s probably little the companies  could have said. They have been cautioned by the NTSB not to disclose information about last month’s accidents.

The NTSB could take a year or more to complete its investigation. Blumenthal urged quicker action.

Hersman said the NTSB is currently investigating 11 rail accidents and “can’t complete our work any quicker.”

“Our work requires us to look at a lot of comprehensive factors,” she said.

The New Haven line tracks are owned by the state of Connecticut. But under an agreement with the state, MTA  is  responsible for maintaining and repairing the track. The cost of doing so is shared.

James Redecker, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, defended Metro-North’s safety record and practices.

“With regard to employee safety, Metro-North has worked to completely transform the safety culture…over the past two decades,” Redecker testified at the hearing.

He also said Metro-North would have repaired the defective track immediately, if that were needed.

“If  anything was found that was considered a safety hazard, that track would have been put out of service or it would have been repaired immediately, “ Redecker said.

He  said that in in the last 10 years, Connecticut has invested $3.2 billion in the New Haven line. But he said there is an estimated $4.5 billion backlog in “critical state of good repair needs that need to be addressed in the near term.”

Included in this backlog, Redecker said, are four movable bridges between Greenwich and New Haven and other bridges on the line.

Redecker also said the system’s  automatic train control system must be upgraded.

Representatives of the railroad industry took advantage of the hearing to tell Congress that all  of the nation’s railroads cannot not meet a Dec. 15, 2015 deadline to implement positive train control (PTC) technology. They asked for a later deadline.

AMTRAK has already implement PTC technology.

Anders said Metro-North is in the process of implementing that plan “despite its unrealistic deadline and a lack of federal funding for this new federal mandate.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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