Bloomberg News

Metro-North Rebuked by U.S. Rail Regulator Over Accident Pattern

December 03, 2013

The top U.S. railroad-safety regulator ordered Metro-North Railroad’s operator to act immediately to boost safety following a series of accidents, including the Dec. 1 derailment in which investigators think the train’s driver wasn’t fully alert before the crash.

The Federal Railroad Administration today called for mandatory safety retraining of Metro-North workers and the creation of a confidential reporting system that lets employees report safety concerns, according to a letter from the agency to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It directed MTA, which operates the railroad, to respond by Dec. 6.

The MTA needs to show its employees “a serious, good faith commitment to the safe operation of the system and inform them of the steps that MTA will take to enhance safety in both the short- and long-term,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote in the letter to MTA Chief Executive Officer Thomas Prendergast.

Szabo sent the letter hours after the National Transportation Safety Board said it found no evidence of alcohol use by the locomotive engineer before his train rounded a curve at almost three times the speed limit and jumped the tracks, killing four people and seriously injuring 11. Drug-testing results are pending, safety board member Earl Weener said at a briefing in Yonkers.

Investigators are looking at why the driver, William Rockefeller, 46, wasn’t fully alert in the moments before the crash, said a person familiar with the probe, who requested anonymity because details of the federal investigation aren’t yet public. It’s not known whether the driver was asleep, the person said.

‘Simply Unacceptable’

In his letter, Szabo cited a total of four Metro-North accidents that have occurred this year resulting in five deaths and 129 injuries, a list that includes a May 17 passenger train derailment in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“The specific causes of each of these accidents may vary, but regardless of the reasons, four serious accidents in less than seven months is simply unacceptable,” Szabo said.

The Dec. 1 crash caused the first passenger deaths ever for the commuter service when the train bound for New York’s Grand Central Terminal derailed while traveling 82 miles per hour on a 30-mph (48 kilometer-per-hour) curve, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday.

“That amount of speed is unjustifiable, period,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said today during an event at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. “We want to be sure the operator is disciplined in an appropriate way. There’s such a gross deviation from normalcy that other agencies may want to take a look at his behavior,” including criminal prosecutors, he said.

Service Restored

The Hudson Line will resume limited service tomorrow morning, said the governor, who oversees the MTA.

The derailment damaged a section of three tracks and repairs still need to be made to two of them, Cuomo said in an e-mail. The third track is ready for trains, he said. Six trains that travel at morning peak times will be combined into three, with expected delays of 10 to 15 minutes, he said.

Just two years ago, Metro-North was singled out for international honors. Now it finds itself facing three federal safety investigations, a wave of retirements and new questions about why the locomotive operator sped into a deadly curve.

“One of the reasons this is all so stunning is that this kind of thing doesn’t historically happen on Metro-North,” William Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said in interview. “It has been a very difficult year for the railroad.”

Agency’s Challenges

The investigations add to the challenges the railroad faces, after being hailed two years ago as the first in the U.S. to win the Brunel Award for design and engineering. Last month, Metro-North was chided by the NTSB for a maintenance backlog. In May, all 700 passengers on two Metro-North trains survived the head-on collision in Bridgeport, days before a worker died in a separate rail accident.

Rockefeller became a locomotive engineer 10 years ago, according to the NTSB. He started his Metro-North career in the stationmaster’s office as a clerk, said Tony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, the union representing Metro-North train operators.

Bottalico said that on Nov. 17 Rockefeller switched from a shift that started in the afternoons to one that began in the early morning. He declined to comment about Rockefeller’s mental state moments before the crash.

Mobile Phone

Weener of the NTSB said at the Yonkers briefing he had no information on whether Rockefeller’s mobile phone had been used during the trip.

“They’ll also look at what the engineer was doing for the previous 72 hours to make sure he wasn’t fatigued,” said Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director who’s now a senior vice president with O’Neill & Associates in Washington. “The issue of distraction and fatigue is a top priority.”

The straightaway leading to the curve had a 70 mph speed limit, which dropped to 30 mph on the 90-degree curve, investigators said.

About 120 passengers were on the express train when it derailed. The crash occurred just north of Manhattan, on the north bank of the Harlem River, where it joins the Hudson. Two women and two men died, and 63 were hurt.

The train’s event-data recorders showed maximum braking five seconds before the speeding engine came to a halt, Weener said in a briefing yesterday.

Braking Technology

The brakes were found to be working before the train got under way, and functioned properly at nine station stops after it left Poughkeepsie, New York, and before the crash, Weener said at today’s briefing.

“There was no degradation of braking performance as the trip went along, no evidence that the brake systems were not functioning properly,” Weener said.

The accident could have been prevented through technology called positive-train control, which automatically slows and stops a train in the event an operator fails to do so, said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a Washington advocacy group.

The NTSB has been advocating the technology for 20 years, Weener said at today’s briefing.

“Since this is a derailment involving a high-speed train, it’s possible that PTC could have prevented it,” he said.

2015 Deadline

Railroads face a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline to install the technology, according to a 2008 law passed after a deadly commuter-rail crash in Los Angeles. The MTA’s Manhattan-North and Long Island Railroad lines have each requested extensions until 2018, MTA spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said. Railroads have complained about the cost and sought a delay. 

Financing to install the devices would be available in legislation proposed today by U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat who said he was a Cold Spring, New York, neighbor and friend of James Lovell, 58, a father of four who died in the crash.

Maloney’s bill would let commuter-rail systems obtain low-cost infrastructure-improvement loans and guarantees for positive train-control technology. Human error is the cause of 40 percent of all rail accidents, Maloney said in a news release.

Workers placed the derailed train’s battered locomotive and cars in upright position and returned them to the tracks, and towed them from the site to Metro-North facilities for inspection by NTSB investigators, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said today. Workers may now begin repairing several hundred feet of track, he said.

Agency Departures

The railroad carries an average of 280,000 riders each weekday, second only to the Long Island Rail Road, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

As it enters its 30th anniversary, Metro-North finds itself beset by departures among its most senior staff, with many of its employees completing their third decade of service and qualifying for full retirement benefits, Henderson said.

“You lose a lot of experience and knowledge and some of the culture that they’ve worked to instill in their employees, and safety is a big part of that,” Henderson said. “It’s difficult to find people who can do the work.”

Metro-North’s chief engineer, Robert Puciloski, speaking at an NTSB hearing last month in Washington on the May derailment, said the commuter line had fallen behind on track maintenance as it lost experienced welders to retirement. Metro-North welders may not have appropriately fixed a cracked joint near where the May derailment occurred, he said.

Held Up

The Bombardier Inc. (BBD/B) railcars in the New York crash held up well, said Michael Weinman, who was an operating officer at Amtrak in the 1970s and is a managing director of PTSI Transportation, a consulting firm based in Rutherford, New Jersey. He characterized the aluminum Comet model as the “battleship” of railcars.

They make up the fleet of non-electrified Metro-North cars, he said. New Jersey Transit and Amtrak also use the same type of cars, which were built by Bombardier from 1982-2002. Weinman said he expects the cars from the crash will be returned to service

To contact the reporters on this story: Angela Greiling Keane in Washington at agreilingkea@bloomberg.net; Freeman Klopott in Albany at fklopott@bloomberg.net; Henry Goldman in New York at hgoldman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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