Metro-North Talks Up Safety a Year After Crash

Positive train control still in distance

By Kevin E. Foley

This past week was the anniversary (Dec. 1) of when residents of Philipstown and other towns along the Metro-North Hudson train line had to mourn the deaths of four fellow citizens. The victims, including Jim Lovell of North Highlands, were passengers on an early Sunday morning train bound for Grand Central Terminal. Lovell was headed for work on a job for the NBC television network. He left behind his wife Nancy Montgomery and three sons. The long line of mourners along Parrott Street waiting for hours to pay their respects and the standing-room-only funeral in Our Lady of Loretto Church still haunt the collective memory.

Jim Lovell (photo by Rebecca Wanner Pearsall)

Jim Lovell (photo by Rebecca Wanner Pearsall)

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the train hit a sharp curve at an excessive speed near the Spuyten Duyvil station, just north of Manhattan, and ran off the tracks. The train’s engineer admitted to suffering from sleep apnea and said he temporarily lost consciousness and therefore failed to slow the train.

In the immediate aftermath of the December derailment, The New York Times reported that an alerter system that signals danger when an engineer has not slowed was already installed on all Metro-North locomotives, but not in the passengers cars. Since locomotives usually pull and control the trains only on the northbound runs, the trains heading south, such as the fateful Dec. 1 train, didn’t have alerters.

While it is not established that an alerter would have prevented the accident, the failure to install them for half of the train runs underscored the failed safety culture that regulators attacked. Metro-North has said all trains will have alerters by year-end.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the national railroad regulator, criticized Metro-North for a poor safety culture and ordered it to make more than two dozen safety reforms. The FRA also pointed out that it had long urged that railroads, including Metro-North, introduce positive train controls systems, which, it is generally agreed, would have prevented the derailment by stopping the train when the engineer failed to correct the train’s speed.

In 2008, in reaction to a California freight train crash that killed 25 people, Congress passed a law mandating installation of positive train control (PTC) systems for commuter and freight railroads by the end of 2015. However Congress did not fund the mandate, making strict enforcement impossible and requests for extensions of the deadline frequent.

A Metro North train pulling into the Cold Spring station. (Photo by K.E. Foley)

A Metro North train pulling into the Cold Spring station. (Photo by K.E. Foley)

Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Sean Maloney led a chorus of congressional criticism over the tragic deaths and dozens of injuries and the findings of serious safety deficiencies at the commuter line. Maloney, a member of the House Transportation Committee, has proposed legislation that would, among other things, provide financing for train systems to install positive train controls.

“One year after a Metro-North derailment took the lives of our friends and neighbors, there is still much we need to do to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again. While our community pauses to honor the victims and their family and friends, I will continue doing everything I can to push for strategic investments that ensure the safety of our neighbors who rely on Metro-North, including implementing positive train control on commuter rails — it’s the single most important thing we can do to stop these accidents and save lives,” said Maloney in a statement this week.

Comment was far more muted on the state level with elected officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, more or less willing to allow the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the parent organization of Metro-North, to take the heat and do what was needed in response. The issue of train safety on commuter rail lines did not play a significant role in the gubernatorial or legislative re-election races.

Rapid response

Metro-North made several major changes in response to the derailment and the onslaught of criticism. The rail line’s president, Howard Permut, resigned and was replaced by Joseph Giulietti, a railroad professional, who quickly made a public commitment to initiate the reforms the FRA ordered. By May 2014 he said Metro-North was in compliance with 21 of 27 reforms.

In response to the poor safety culture criticism, the MTA board had to tellingly resurrect its former safety committee to re-emphasize board-level safety review. Few MTA board members, all gubernatorial appointees, have backgrounds in rail systems let alone safety engineering.

Metro-North did create the new executive position of chief safety officer, which can add to the importance of safety in decision making as system managers will likely be reluctant to create a record of ignoring or resisting recommendations or orders from such an individual. Still, the depth of the criticism Metro-North has sustained begs the question whether more needs to be done to offer riders greater certainty that safety is a constant and meaningful consideration.

“Metro-North is actively installing PTC and has accelerated delivery dates to expedite its activation. We have already spent about $30 million for preliminary design. We also have a $217 million contract for a system integrator to design, integrate and furnish a PTC system for wayside, onboard, office and communications equipment for east of Hudson … In all, Metro-North expects to spend $524 million to install PTC system-wide,” wrote Majorie Anders, a Metro-North spokesperson.

Anders’ email sought to correct a misimpression this reporter had given in a previous article suggesting Metro-North was not actively pursuing PTC. Anders, by deadline for The Paper, had not replied to the question as to when Metro-North expected to actually have PTC installed. Previously published reports have varied as to when, but it appears unlikely the 2015 congressional deadline will be met.

System safer?

“Yes, it is safer. Is it as safe as it should or could be? No, it is not. Is it making progress at a rate it should be making? That’s a question mark,” said Christopher Wasiutynski, a Cold Spring resident with staff-level experience in transit issues in the New York State Assembly and the New York City Department of Transportation. His work involved interaction with the MTA. In retirement he still regularly reads railroad journals.

Wasiutynski told The Paper he thought the MTA and by extension Metro-North had long had a defensive attitude about criticism and often reverted to a you-have-to-understand-we-are-a-complicated-system response. He pointed out that in the aftermath of the accident, even though PTC was in the planning stages, MTA spokespeople were questioning the effectiveness of PTC systems, describing it as untested.

Even Gov. Cuomo expressed skepticism at the time. Yet, said Wasiutynski, Amtrak, which has many more miles of track nationally, had been using PTC for years, as have various European railroads. From Wasiutynski’s perspective, Europe, which has coordinated and standardized safety planning through the European Union, and China are further ahead in the deployment of safety technology.

One thought on “Metro-North Talks Up Safety a Year After Crash

  1. The bottom line of the above story is that in realty nothing has been done to properly compensate for a serious safety flaw since 2008 that proved so painfully one year ago to be a weakness, and that being relying on an isolated human being {train engineer} to never fail which if they do can cost the lives of many. Significant life safety concerns such as this must be corrected immediately to provide a level of confidence that the concern is no longer one.

    Placing a second person trained to stop train if need be is one immediate remedy that would be appropriate. Yes it is costly but should only be a temporary solution while you purchase and install proven technology to eliminate this weakness. Also the more costly temporary solution will force a quicker response towards a more cost efficient permanent fix than what now appears to be a number of additional years before finally this serious and dangerous weakness is removed. Question is really can we afford to wait and gamble?