Federal Report: N.Y. Metro-North Railroad Allowed Safety to Erode

By Jim Fitzgerald | March 18, 2014

The second-largest U.S. commuter railroad allowed safety to erode while pushing to keep its trains on time, resulting in a lax culture of inadequate inspections, poor training and inappropriate cellphone use, according to a stinging federal report prompted by a deadly derailment.

The Federal Railroad Administration, in a report to Congress issued on March 14, said Metro-North’s emphasis on sticking to its schedule “led to a deficient safety culture that has manifested itself in increased risk and reduced safety.”

It said that “no single department or office, including the Safety Department, proactively advocates for safety” at the railroad, which carried more than 843 million riders between New York City and its suburbs in 2013.

The review was prompted by a Dec. 1 derailment in the Bronx that killed four passengers and injured about 70 others. But it also cited three other accidents in 2013: a derailment in Connecticut that injured more than 50 people; an accident in Connecticut that killed a Metro-North worker; and a freight train derailment in June in New York City.

It did not include another worker’s death on the tracks March 10 in Manhattan.

FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo said on a conference call that Metro-North “failed to set aside sufficient time” for track inspection and maintenance and resisted testing its crews on its main lines, “the most important place to do it,” for fear of delaying passenger trains.

The agency ordered the railroad to immediately “prioritize safety above all else” and spread that idea throughout the railroad.

Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti, who took office after the Bronx derailment, said at a Grand Central Terminal news conference that the report was “deeply troubling and it raises real concerns.”

“Safety was not the top priority,” he said. “It must be and it will be. … Every problem I have seen here can be fixed and will be fixed.” He said “aggressive actions” were already underway, including a program that would allow workers to make confidential calls raising safety issues.

Metro-North also has modified signals and posted speed limits. The train that derailed in the Bronx was going 82 mph (131 kph) as it entered a curve with a 30 mph (48 kph) speed limit, the National Transportation Safety Board has found.

The NTSB’s full report on the derailment is several months away.

The report found that Metro-North training needs improvement in at least seven areas, ranging from track safety to engineer certification to dispatch.

It found that the railroad’s rules addressing workers’ use of cellphones are confusing and that the use of phones “appeared to be commonplace and accepted” by some employees. It suggested phone usage could be a distraction and asserted that employees used phones inappropriately.

Associated Press videojournalist Joseph B. Frederick in New York contributed to this report.

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