Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Senators deliver strong message
By Kevin E. Foley
The Metro-North Railroad has once again come under sharp criticism for its “ineffective safety management” with the release of an investigative report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The report issued Tuesday (Oct. 28) sought to understand the causes of several rail line accidents in the last year, including the December 2013 derailment that killed four passengers, Philipstown’s Jim Lovell among them.
In that accident, the NTSB confirmed earlier reported preliminary findings that the engineer, William Rockefeller, had dozed off, allowing his train to increase speed to 82 miles per hour while coming into a sharp turn. Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the NTSB, said Tuesday that his agency has called for the screening of train operators for sleep disorders for the last 12 years. He accused Metro-North’s primary regulator, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), of ignoring the recommendation.
In addition the NTSB also reported that it has for some time urged railroads to install positive train control systems that it believes would have prevented the engineer’s lapse from derailing the train, by automatically preventing the train from exceeding preset speeds. A federal law passed by Congress in 2008 requires the upgrade but allows for the granting of a waiver, which Metro-North sought and received, claiming the upgrade expense was prohibitive.
The report also deals with the death of a Metro-North electrician in Manhattan who was hit by a train while working on the tracks and an accident in which a Metro-North track foreman on the New Haven line was killed by a speeding train while making repairs along a track. In addition, there were three other derailments that caused injuries to dozens of people. The derailments resulted in large measure from poor track maintenance, according to the NTSB report.
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Connecticut’s two senators joined Hart in presenting the NTSB findings and lambasting the FRA for poor regulatory oversight. They also echoed the NTSB report in critiquing Metro-North and Metro-North’s parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for deferring maintenance and a general lack of focus on safety while placing too much emphasis on maintaining the on-time record of the train schedule.
According to several published reports, Schumer told a Grand Central Station press conference that the NTSB report exposed a “horror house of negligence, resulting in injury, mayhem and even death.” Hart observed that five serious accidents in a year prompted the question, “How important was safety at Metro-North?”
Joseph Giulietti, president of Metro-North, reaffirmed that he had instituted new safety regimens at the railroad, claiming 85 percent of the NTSB recommendations were already in the works. He said that a pilot program for sleep disorder testing would be in place by December and that train speed controls would be installed at several critical track curves and bridges in the Metro-North system.
The NTSB chairman and the senators did offer positive comments for the MTA’s hiring this week of a former NTSB official as the new safety chief for the entire system, which includes Metro-North, the Long Island Rail Road and the New York City subway and bus operations. Each of the separate rail operations has a safety official who will report to the new appointee. Earlier this year the MTA reinstated a board-level safety committee in the aftermath of the December train crash.