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.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Foley is the former managing editor of The Current and a partner in foleymyers communications in Northampton, Massachusetts.

2 replies on “Poor Metro-North Safety Practices Cited”

  1. Thanks for this story, Kevin. It seems after all these tragedies Metro-North is still not making safety a priority. These are our moms and dads, and for many, our kids who are traveling on this line.

    I know we’ll all be keeping Nancy and the Lovell boys in your thoughts as this season approaches.

  2. “Safety Comes First.” This has to become Metro North’s new culture and it has to mean something. We had a serious safety flaw identified here probably many years ago since NTSB states they urged corrective action “some time ago” and Congress enacted a law in 2008, which meant they knew about it probably at least a year plus earlier than that. Yet even with a new law it allows for a “waiver” because it’s too expensive to fix. This should be unacceptable. When you identify a serious safety problem your first action is to immediately compensate for the weakness which could have been someone placed with engineer trained to stop train and advise of such if engineer for any reason is unable to perform such function. You then look into installation of systems provided it provides the level of safety you need.

    Safety is a culture and needs to be top priority for every employee going forward at Metro North and any other entity which is entrusted with the lives of people. The injury or loss of life of just one person such as our loss of a good decent man in Jim Lovell is too high a price to pay.

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