Two years after being singled out for international honors, Metro-North Railroad finds itself facing a wave of retirements, under three federal safety investigations, and explaining to officials and riders why a locomotive engineer drove a speeding train into a deadly curve.
The commuter service, operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, suffered its first passenger deaths on Dec. 1 when a train bound for New York’s Grand Central Terminal derailed on a 30-mile-per-hour (48 kilometer-per-hour) curve while traveling 82 mph, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday. Four died.
“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.”
The investigations add to challenges for the railroad that two years ago was 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 a head-on collision in Connecticut, days before a worker died in a separate rail accident.
The railroad is also beset by departures among its most senior staff. Metro-North is reaching its 30th anniversary, with a large number of employees finishing 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.”
Since the beginning of the year, several upper managers have left, Henderson said. Marjorie Anders, an MTA spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Training replacements takes time. Metro-North trains, like most commuter trains, are operated by a single engineer. Those employees often work their way up from being conductors or brakemen, according to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union that represents engineers.
William Rockefeller, who was driving the derailed train, became a locomotive engineer about 15 years ago, after starting 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.
The railroad, which employs about 5,900 people, lists 21 job openings on its website, including a training officer for locomotive engineers and a chief mechanical officer.
Metro-North carries an average of 280,000 riders each weekday, second only to the Long Island Rail Road, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
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.
It would be irresponsible to dismiss the three Metro-North events this year as a coincidence, said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research who studies the regional mass-transit systems.
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 straightaway leading to the curve had a 70 mph speed limit, which dropped to 30 mph on the 90-degree curve, investigators said.
The train’s event-data recorders showed maximum braking five seconds before the speeding engine came to a halt, safety board member Earl Weener said yesterday at a briefing in Yonkers, New York. It isn’t clear yet whether mechanical failure or human error was to blame, he said.
The brakes had worked properly at nine station stops after it left Poughkeepsie, New York, and before the crash, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said at the briefing.
“Clearly, the brakes were working a short time before the train came to this curve,” Schumer said.
The engineer was tested for drugs and alcohol, and investigators examined his mobile phone to see when it had been used, Weener said.
“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 and Associates in Washington. “The issue of distraction and fatigue is a top priority.”
In a 2008 head-on crash in Los Angeles between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific Corp. freight train that killed 25 people, the Metrolink operator was texting and missed signals telling him to stop, the NTSB found.
The Bombardier Inc. 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.
With assistance from Peter S. Green in New York, Elise Young in Trenton and Michael B. Marois in Sacramento. Editors: Pete Young, Robin Meszoly