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Thursday, April 19 Local

Fed report: Metro-North endangered public

Metro-North Railroad's choice to place on-time performance over safety is seen as the likely cause of the derailment last May on the Bridgeport-Fairfield border that injured 50 people and caused $18 million in damage.

"Better maintenance and inspection would have prevented that derailment," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., referring to that accident on the New Haven Line.

The railroad's obsession with on-time performance -- Metro-North consistently chose not to close tracks for inspections and critical safety work in order to keep trains on schedule -- is the central theme of a scathing review of the troubled railroad released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Dubbed "Operation Deep Dive," the 60-day FRA investigation of Metro-North found the railroad lacked a commitment to safety, delayed inspections and repairs, failed to adequately train workers and failed to provide sufficient time to make repairs when improvements were authorized.

"There was a clear overemphasis on on-time performance to the detriment of safety and ineffective and inadequate training," said FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo.

The Bridgeport accident occurred May 17, when an eastbound train traveling 70 mph derailed and was struck by a westbound train. A broken rail joint found at the scene is believed to be the cause of the accident, which remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Blumenthal said he has been told by NTSB and FRA officials that the accident could have been prevented if proper inspection and maintenance programs were in place.

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FRA recommendations
Improve focus on safety;
Submit plan to improve employee training;
Increase inspections and repairs;
Increase maintenance;
Correct lapses in record keeping;
Ensure safety department provides effective leadership, participates in all meetings;
Take steps to lessen employee fatigue;
Reduce distractions impacting workers;
Improve operational controls;
Improve employee qualifications.

"That has been confirmed. Folks would be alive now if the some of the safety protections (identified in the FRA report) were in place," Blumenthal said, referring to a fatal accident in New York. "The glaring, dramatic deficiencies in safety contributed to deaths."

The Bridgeport crash was just one in a series of Metro-North failures over the last year that included the death of four people in the Bronx after a train derailed while traveling too fast around a curve. The engineer had apparently dozed at the time.

A rail worker was killed in West Haven last year when a train was mistakenly allowed on tracks under repair.

In addition, trains have lost power, leaving passengers shivering in the cold.

The release of the FRA investigation drew expressions of shock and anger that blamed a railroad out of control, and it dealt an embarrassing blow to a railroad once considered among the nation's best.

"It was even worse than we thought," said Jim Cameron, a longtime commuter advocate who leads the Commuter Action Group.

"In a nutshell, the report confirms our worst fears: a severely lacking culture of safety at the railroad," said U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY.

Joseph Giulietti, Metro-North's new president, said in a statement that the FRA performed an important review of Metro-North's operations and recommended significant improvements.

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He said Metro-North is already taking "aggressive actions to affirm that safety is the most important factor in railroad operations."

Commuter times are expected to rise when Metro-North releases new schedules this spring.

Expects results

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he expects quick results from the FRA report and quick implementation of the 21 orders for improvements.

"This report reinforces the serious concerns I have raised with Metro-North leadership regarding their business practices in light of the major issues that impacted Metro-North and the New Haven Line over the past year," Malloy said.

"I expect key recommendations of this report will be the top priorities addressed in the 100-day plan for the railroad," he said. "I want that report in short order so that riders will have deadlines and benchmarks that will hold the railroad accountable."

State officials earlier received a promise from Metro-North to produce a 100-day plan for improvements to the railroad.

Asked if Metro-North is safe to ride, Szabo, the FRA administrator who oversaw the review, said the railroad is now safe.

"I do believe Metro-North is a much safer railroad today than it was three months ago," he said. "Through our findings, we have seen changes in track inspections, and they are modifying their safety department."

"They are modifying signal systems and track inspections have improved. They are doing mainline operations testing and enhanced operational processes. It's clearly a safer railroad -- but it's time to raise the bar and get back to the gold standard they once proudly held," Szabo said.

The review also found a lack of supervision for track inspections and pressure to rush repairs to keep service running normally.

"The findings of Operation Deep Dive demonstrate that Metro-North emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure," the report said. "This led to a deficient safety culture that has manifested itself in increased risk and reduced safety" on Metro-North.

"When push comes to shove, safety has to reign supreme," Szabo said.


The 31 page FRA report includes specific steps Metro-North must undertake within 60 days. It also requires monthly meetings between the FRA and the railroad to gauge progress.

The railroad must submit a plan to the FRA to improve the safety department's mission and effectiveness and ensure the department provides effective leadership and oversight on safety issues. Metro-North must ensure that safety department staff participate in safety meetings at all levels and provide appropriate in-person monitoring of field activities and personnel.

Other orders include submitting a plan to the FRA to improve training across the organization, increase track repairs and maintenance, decrease employee fatigue, correct lapses in record keeping, reduce distractions affecting workers, improve operational controls and step up employee qualifications.

Szabo said the FRA also learned lessons as a result of the Deep Dive investigation, explaining that the reams of data from inspections and other sources regularly reviewed by the federal agency failed to raise a red flag.

"There was nothing in the data that indicated the seriousness of the problem," Szabo said. "This is a clear indicator to make changes in the future. We have to advance more proactive measures in safety like close-call reporting."

Jumping tracks

The FRA probe began in December after a seven-car train careened off the tracks in Spuyten Duyvil on the Hudson line at 82 mph, where the top speed was 30 mph. The crash killed four and injured 70, and sparked the regulatory agency to mandate changes, including speed restrictions and upgrades to signal systems to trigger automatic braking.

After the Bridgeport derailment, the agency increased its inspections of Metro-North tracks and conducted spot audits with federal regulators.

The Deep Dive investigation represented an unusually aggressive use of the FRA's authority to intervene, and the report ratchets up its focus on Metro North's safety culture.

Cameron, the commuter advocate, called the report "a scathing indictment of years of neglect and mismanagement at the railroad."

"On-time performance was the top priority, not safety," Cameron said. "Training for new hires has been inadequate. Management has not been enforcing safety rules about things as simple as no cellphone use on the job."

"Railroad workers are fatigued because too many are working lucrative overtime shifts because of unfilled staff positions," he said. "Metro-North managers are not conducting mandated surprise inspections of locomotive engineers, testing their knowledge and observing them on the job."

More funding

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., said members of Congress must obtain funding to maintain the New Haven Line's infrastructure.

"The federal government bears a responsibility for the safe operation of those lines," Esty said. "There has been a dramatic and systematic failure by lawmakers to prioritize investments in infrastructure. We need to invest in maintenance and improvements. We should not wait till trains crash and bridges collapse and people die."

Blumenthal said the spotlight must also be on railroad managers.

"To be blunt, the area that seems lacking in this report relates to management," he said. "If people are incompetent, they need to be shown the door. The blame here is not only money; it's also management."

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, and ranking member of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, said there must be an "urgent call" for action by Metro-North's management.

"There is a lack of a culture of safety, and a lack of proper procedures and training when it comes to making sure that commuter safety is priority No. 1," she said. "This is evident from the numerous fatalities and injuries on Metro-North within a very short time frame."

Still, Boucher said it's possible to have on-time service and a solid safety record. "Unfortunately, both nationally and at the state level, our transportation system has gotten short shrift from government focus and funding," she said.

The report reflects disengagement by the railroad's previous leadership and the lack of safety as a priority, said Anthony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association for Commuter Rail Employees, which represents engineers and conductors.

"Our former administration created a bloated bureaucracy at the top, with pay raises and promotions, new job titles, and took their eye off what's important: running the railroad," Bottalico said.

Bottalico said Giulietti, the new Metro-North president, "gets it," and union members "are with him 150 percent on getting things back to where it should be. It will take time and much more oversight and education, but rest assured we will get there."