Probe finds Metro-North safety practices inadequate

A damning federal report found that safety was a major issue on the Metro-North Railroad, where
some track infrastructure is over 100 years old.
A damning federal report found that safety was a major issue on the Metro-North Railroad, where some track infrastructure is over 100 years old. Photo by WIlliam Freedberg.

A federal report released Friday blasted the Metro-North Railroad’s self-oversight, saying that the organization has built a culture of not making its passengers’ safety its first priority.

The 28-page report, the result of a systematic evaluation known as “Operation Deep Dive,” took  60 days’ worth of investigations by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and was prompted by a fatal December derailment on the Hudson line portion of Metro-North, the second largest commuter railroad in the country serving Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. The report cited an overemphasis on punctuality, an “ineffective Safety Department and safety culture,” and insufficient training for engineers as reasons for administering the audit.

“The findings of Operation Deep Dive demonstrate that Metro-North has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure,” it said. “This is a severe assessment and it is intended as an urgent call to action to Metro-North’s leadership.”

Based on interviews and observation, FRA investigators found that railway employees felt pressure to “rush when responding to signal failures.”  Track department employees said they were not allotted sufficient time to make track repairs, and testing officers said they lacked time to conduct routine speed tests.

In the wake of the Dec. 1 derailment at Spuyten Duyvil that killed four and injured 63, the FRA issued emergency measures designed to prevent trains from going at dangerous speeds by “identifying and prioritizing high-risk areas,” and mandating more emergency training for railroad workers. On Dec. 16, the FRA decided to launch the audit that would become Operation Deep Dive.

In a statement, newly installed Metro-North President Joseph Giuletti said the railroad “is taking aggressive actions to affirm that safety is the most important factor in railroad operations, and we welcome the FRA’s continued involvement to help establish a consistent safety-first culture throughout the railroad.” Connecticut DOT Spokesman Kevin Nursick declined to comment when reached.

Connecticut Commuter Rail Council Member David Hendricks said he found the report “somewhat damning” and added that it will be a cause for “reflection” for Metro-North. Hendricks said that members of the Commuter Rail Council, a volunteer non-compensated body chartered by the State of Connecticut and unaffiliated with Metro North, will meet with legislators in Hartford next Wednesday.

John Hartwell, the Council’s Vice Chair, agreed that the situation was “more serious” than he and the other members of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council had anticipated, and said that the recent onslaught of problems in Metro-North’s management was due to a massive departure of the railroad’s senior staff, a challenge for which Metro-North did not appropriately prepare. Hartwell added that the state has not always made sufficient efforts to maintain its railroads.

“There’s been a huge effort in the last couple of years, but we’re playing catchup,” he said.  “Some of the infrastructure is over 100 years old.”

The report follows a March newsletter from Metro-North itself, admitting that the railroad offered worse service in January 2014 than it did for all of 2013 according to Hearst Media. The federal audit that Operation Deep Dive precipitated even included a series of “Comprehensive Directed Actions” for Metro-North — notably, submitting a plan to reevaluate the organization’s structure and distribution of responsibilities as well as a new training program within 60 days.

New Haven and state lawmakers reacted to the report’s release with disgust and concern.

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty LAW ’85 called the report a “serious condemnation of Metro-North’s safety culture” in a Friday statement. She said the “unacceptable” conditions are indicative of “a dramatic systematic failure on the part of lawmakers to prioritize investments in our infrastructure.”

State Senator Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said that Metro-North would have to have “more exacting standards in terms of safety, performance, and rider satisfaction,” but disputed the notion that the Legislature bore responsibility for not adequately funding the state’s railroad infrastructure.

“We’ve been in a budget crisis for the past five years and every area had to be constrained in its funding,” he said. “Given the economy we’ve done what we could reasonably expect to do. I think more issues had to do with poor management rather than funding.”

Looney also demurred on the question of what specific policies Metro-North should implement in the wake of the report, saying that it will be up to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee to file the appropriate legislation — and up to Metro-North to take the steps necessary remedy its current problems.

According to the MTA, the Metro-North Railroad is in the second-largest commuter railway in the nation with an annual ridership of 83 million people.

 

Comments