FRA Orders Safety Improvements At Metro-North

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Alarmed by Metro-North’s seven-month-long string of train wrecks and derailments, the Federal Railroad Administration on Friday issued emergency orders to make the nation’s busiest commuter railroad operate more safely.

The new rules force Metro-North to modify its signals and train-control systems to prevent the kind of high-speed crash that killed four passengers and injured 75 others in the Bronx on Sunday, when a Hudson Line train jumped the tracks at 82 mph on a curve with a 30 mph speed limit.

The FRA also directed that until those systems are improved, the railroad must post a conductor or second engineer near the controls when a train passes through a zone with a sharp change in speed limits. In addition, the agency demanded that Metro-North devise a detailed plan before the new year to explain exactly how it will better ensure the safety of passengers and employees.

The rules apply to Metro-North’s operations in Connecticut and New York, where it serves an average of about 281,000 passengers a day.

The FRA, which had already stepped up its oversight of Metro-North after a May 17 derailment and crash in Bridgeport injured 75 people, has used uncommonly harsh language this week in criticizing the railroad’s operations.

Agency Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote that “four serious accidents in less than seven months is simply unacceptable,” and a press release about Friday’s orders warned that “failure to comply with [the] requirements will result in enforcement actions.”

He was referring to the fatal crash on Sunday, the collision in Bridgeport in May, the death of a Metro-North track foreman who was hit and killed by a train in West Haven in May, and the derailment of a freight train on Metro-North tracks in the Bronx in July.

In September, a major power failure affected New Haven Line service for several days.

The head of Metro-North’s parent organization admitted on Friday evening that confidence in the railroad has suffered.

“We understand very well that public perception has been damaged and that our focus on safety must be transparent to our customers and other stakeholders,” Thomas Prendergast, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, wrote in a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has told Metro-North he wants monthly updates on its safety initiatives.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, along with three New York congressmen, called for a congressional hearing on rail safety in light of Metro-North’s accidents.

Critics say the railroad’s troubles extend beyond the crashes, and include a stretch of service meltdowns and schedule-disrupting mishaps that began about two years ago, including the stranding of passengers in Westport in 2011 when a heat wave caused catenary wires to droop. They acknowledge that there is no single cause for what has gone wrong, but agree that any solution would require two dramatic cultural changes at Metro-North: Stricter accountability and more transparency.

“This railroad has a lot of soul-searching to do. It needs to look at itself in the mirror very closely, it needs to connect the dots. These very serious incidents all indicate lapses and gaps in management,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Metro-North needs to ask ‘How do we change?’ Not just tinkering at the margins, but fundamentally.”

James Cameron, former chairman of the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council, suggested that Metro-North leadership carries plenty of the responsibility.

“In the past two years, Metro-North has gone from first to worst. It’s been going to hell in a handbasket,” said Cameron, who for years was one of the railroad’s most seasoned and outspoken watchdogs. “There’s a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation at Metro-North. I’ve seen the pattern over the last couple of years. The railroad is constantly trying to hide its problems. ”

Cameron specifically criticized railroad President Howard Permut.

“After the accident Sunday, he was nowhere to be seen. It was like ‘Where’s Waldo?’ It was ‘Where’s Howard?’ Then yesterday his name showed up on a statement — when the railroad was saying they’d just restored service,” Cameron said. “The man doesn’t take criticism well.”

Blumenthal said Connecticut should get a seat on the board of the MTA, which runs Metro-North and has a long-term contract to operate most commuter trains in the state.

The MTA is a mammoth, $13 billion-a-year organization that also runs the Long Island Rail Road and New York City’s subways, buses, tunnels and bridges. Metro-North makes up barely 10 percent of the MTA’s budget and payroll.

“What people forget is that Metro-North is a vendor to the state. I’ve asked before whether it’s time to fire Metro-North,” Cameron said. “But in the last decade, the state transportation department has become more and more hands-off with its rail operations. I don’t know if the DOT does an annual evaluation of Metro-North. They just seem to lurch from crisis to crisis.”

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, is pressing for a hearing by the General Assembly’s transportation commission.

“Transparency is really part of the problem with the contract with Metro-North. It’s convoluted and opaque and doesn’t really define their role and responsibilities,” said Boucher, who has tracked the issue for years.

Boucher said Connecticut taxpayers also deserve to know why Connecticut-owned rail cars were part of the train that crashed in New York on Sunday. Diesel-power equipment for New York lines and the Connecticut branch lines is traded around periodically, she said, but there’s no accounting at the end of the year.

“We should be able to ascertain what we’re getting for the costs our riders are paying, but we can’t,” she said. “Connecticut bears a large portion of the cost of the entire Metro-North operation, but we don’t know how the equipment is actually being used. We should know about the infrastructure, but we don’t. I’d like our transportation commissioner to take that contract and dissect it.

“I’ve talked with people who have become a little gun-shy about taking the train now,” Boucher said. “That’s not acceptable.”

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