Federal report: Metro-North values performance over safety

The Federal Railroad Administration issued a report Friday, March 14, that says Metro-North places too much emphasis on on-time performance, has an ineffective safety department and poor safety culture, and an ineffective training program.

The report is based on an investigation called Operation Deep Dive, undertaken after several high-profile accidents in 2013 including a May 17 collision of two trains in Bridgeport that injured more than 50 people, and a fatal derailment Dec. 1 in New York City in which four passengers were killed and more than 70 injured.

The report specified eight areas of “safety-critical concerns:”

• Track safety standards;

• Railroad operating rules;

• Qualifications and certification of locomotive engineers and conductors;

• Railroad workplace safety;

• Train control systems;

• Worker protection;

• Operations control center;

• Employee fatigue.

The report also directs Metro-North’s senior leadership to “prioritize safety above all else, and communicate and implement that priority throughout Metro-North.

The railroad administration also requires Metro-North to submit, within 60 days, a plan to improve its safety department’s mission and effectiveness. The department must provide effective leadership and oversight on safety issues and communicate effectively throughout the Metro-North system. Programs ensuring appropriate in-person monitoring of field activities and personnel must be put in place.

Within 60 days, Metro-North must also submit to the railroad administration a plan to improve its training program.

In its conclusion the report said, “Metro-North must never compromise safety in the interest of the reliability of its train schedule or the efficiency of its railroad operations. The findings of Operation Deep Dive demonstrate that Metro-North has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure. This led to a deficient safety culture that has manifested itself in increased risk and reduced safety on Metro-North. This is a severe assessment, and it is intended as an urgent call to action to Metro-North’s leadership as they work to develop a comprehensive plan to turn Metro-North into a model of safe railroad operations.

The railroad administration said it “is encouraged by the many good employees who met with our Deep Dive teams and were interviewed for this report. Their dedication and desire to turn Metro-North into a safe, professional railroad serving the citizens of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut will provide Metro-North’s new leadership with a solid foundation upon which to make immediate improvements and effect long-term cultural change.”

Wilton state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) called the report “alarming.”

“The findings show safety deficiencies in every area of Metro-North’s operations. This means that the lives of rail passengers have been at risk every day, and this is simply unacceptable,” she said.

“This report must be an immediate wake-up call for Metro-North. No delay in following the report’s recommendations must be tolerated, either by the Connecticut Department of Transportation, Connecticut’s executive branch, the General Assembly, or the federal transportation authorities. People’s lives are at stake.”

Ms. Lavielle is a ranking member of the transportation subcommittee of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.

She noted the railroad administration has committed to monthly meetings with Metro-North to review progress on the report it must submit by May 17. She called this continued involvement “crucial.”

“Metro-North’s alarming record on safety speaks for itself and warrants constant oversight by an external organization with the authority to enforce changes,” she continued.

“Because Connecticut’s contract with Metro-North does not include provisions that allow the state to impose and enforce standards for safety and service, the DOT, the General Assembly, and the executive branch must do everything possible to ensure that the [Federal Railroad Administration] remains heavily involved and stays close to Metro-North until all safety issues are completely resolved.”