Washington – Crisis-plagued Metro-North and its parent company sought to delay and weaken proposed federal safety measures that could have helped prevent some of the accidents the rail company suffered in the past year.

Less than two weeks before a foreman was struck and killed by an oncoming train near the West Haven station last May, Metro-North pressed the Federal Railroad Administration, successfully, to delay implementation of a workplace safety rule, which, among other things, would require all trains to slow to 25 mph when passing a work site.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North’s parent company, says it has a right to lobby federal agencies on issues that concern the company and the industry.

“Just like every agency in the federal government, when the Federal Railroad Administration publishes a proposed rule, the public is encouraged to comment,” said MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan.  “This comment period gives organizations like the MTA an opportunity to provide feedback and to improve the proposed rule.  Since these rules are expected to apply to the entire country, it’s important for the FRA to know how its proposed rule will affect rail agencies in Utah, as well as New York. Safety has been and will continue to be the top priority of the MTA and its agencies.”

The FRA published its final regulations on railroad workplace safety Jan. 10. But when the FRA first tried to implement those regulations in November 2011, the agency was pressed by Metro-North and others to delay implementation  until July 2013. The FRA agreed.

Metro-North wrote the FRA May 7 of last year asking the agency to delay the safety regulations again, saying they would cost too much.

The scene of the May 18, 2013, Metro-North derailment in Bridgeport.
The scene of the May 18, 2013, Metro-North derailment in Bridgeport.

“Metro-North Railroad estimates the additional cost associated with adjacent track safety for roadway workers could be $3.34 million,” the letter to the FRA said. “As a publicly-funded agency, the cost of the  final rule for adjacent track safety for roadway workers would pose a considerable financial burden for Metro-North Railroad’s operation.”

Metro-North said it would have to hire 42 new employees to implement the new rules. The FRA responded by modifying the proposed regulations to exempt some types of rail work, including welding, to spare Metro-North from having to hire new workers. The final regulation, which will take effect in July, also allows passenger trains to travel up to 40 mph past a work site, while freight trains are limited to no more 25 mph.

In a statement, the FRA said the new workplace safety regulations would not have spared the life of track foreman Robert Luden, who was struck and killed by a passenger train in West Haven last May 28. The National Transportation Safety Board says he had requested a track section to be taken out of service for maintenance, and the section was placed back in service too soon by a student traffic controller.

“The trainee controller’s actions appeared to have been in violation of current federal railroad safety regulations and Metro-North’s current operating rules,” the FRA said.

But regulations that may have saved Luden’s life met resistance from the railroad industry.

Those regulations would have required railroads to attach a “shunt,” or a device to the tracks that would signal rail dispatchers that the track is closed. The closed signal would remain in place until workers remove the shunt.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority wrote the FRA on Oct. 19, 2012, that it opposed shunts because they “could have several unintended consequences, including crossing malfunctions and signal system disruptions.”

After Luden’s death, Metro-North voluntarily instituted a pilot shunt program on the tracks involved in the accident. The MTA voluntarily took other safety measures after its rash of accidents in the past year. Some of those steps include  installing automatic speed protections at the Spuyten Duyvil curve that was the site of the fatal accident in New York. It also lowered speed limits at 26 other locations and within a year plans to install “alerter” systems that keep operators focused on all trains within a year.

The MTA also implemented special inspections of  tracks after the Bridgeport crash.

But New Haven attorney Marisa A. Bellair, who is suing Metro-North on behalf of Luden’s estate, said the safety measures were implemented too late. She said a shunt would have protected the foreman’s life.

“You would have to think that if safety is [Metro-North’s] first concern, that rule would have been finalized,” Bellair said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has waged a campaign against Metro-North since a May 17 crash and derailment near Bridgeport involving two commuter trains  injured more than 70 people.

He says he’s angry that Metro-North and the MTA did not do more to make sure their trains are safe and for pushing back on proposed new safety regulations. He’s also angry at the Federal Railroad Administration for delaying action on safety rules.

“My view is there is no excuse for failing to produce a rule that could have saved lives,” he said.

Blumenthal’s campaign against Metro-North has  increased in intensity as the number of incidents involving the company has piled up in the last year. Besides the Bridgeport derailment and Luden’s death, a feeder cable in Mount Vernon, N.Y., failed in September, knocking out power for 12 days to Metro-North’s New Haven line, which carries 132,000 commuters daily.

A Dec. 1 derailment in New York killed four passengers and injured more than 70. And last week, 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 three National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigations and the recent retirement of  Metro-North President Howard Permut. Joe Giullietti is slated to replace Permut.

Blumenthal said his hearing on the accident and letters to the FRA urging them to speed stalled safety regulations may have prompted the flurry of action by the agency recently .

“The heat and light that we brought to bear may have been an influence,” he said.

Last week, the FRA posted another rule that would  have prevented last year’s derailment near Bridgeport.

The NTSB has not made a final determination of the cause of the accident, but preliminary reports point to broken joint bars — steel  pieces that connect track segments — that were not repaired right away. Nor did Metro-North order a slowdown for trains crossing the damaged track until it could be repaired.

The new regulations would increase the use of special cars that inspect the rails for problems. They would also establish a new procedure for the repair of joint bars.

The final rule also increases the frequency of rail inspections and subjects all detection equipment operators to a minimum level of training.

But once again, the railroad industry objected to the FRA’s proposed regulations when they were first proposed in October of 2012.

Metro-North did not submit comment on this proposal, but the MTA did, saying it’s difficult to inspect tracks on a busy commuter line like the Long Island Railroad. The MTA asked the Federal Railroad Administration to allow intervals between inspections as long as 400 days.

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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