Metro-North Assures Malloy It Is Making Progress On Safety [Hartford Courant]

December 18, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

Lawmaker: ‘My concern is that you have the technology available to prevent this, but it wasn’t on the trains.’


The Hartford Courant
9:30 PM EST, December 17, 2013

On the eve of a state hearing into what’s gone wrong at crash-plagued Metro-North, the railroad reported to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Tuesday that it’s rapidly upgrading tracks and better enforcing safety rules.

The 12-page report never explains why infrastructure was allowed to fall into disrepair in the first place, however, or why operating rules that have been in place for decades now are urgently getting reinforcement and tighter supervision.

Critics of the Metro-North Commuter Railroad have been asking for just those kinds of answers after the horrific high-speed wreck on Dec. 1 that killed four riders in the Bronx. State lawmakers are likely to be asking tough questions at an informational hearing Wednesday at the Capitol.

“My concern is that you have the technology available to prevent this, but it wasn’t on the trains. Why not?” said Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, chairman of the General Assembly’s transportation committee. “If the technology doesn’t exist, I get that. But these safeguards are in other places. Why not here?”

The railroad is in the midst of the worst month in its 30-year history, and has come under fire from many directions.

In the past three weeks, the chief of the Federal Railroad Administration labeled Metro-North’s recent safety record unacceptable, former railroad watchdog James Cameron proclaimed Metro-North operates under “a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation,” and Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, joined several New York congressmen in calling for a congressional inquiry.

Since 2011, the railroad has gone through a dizzying series of wrecks, derailments, accidents and service meltdowns that killed five people, injured more than 140 passengers and crew, and repeatedly stranded tens of thousands of commuters for days at a time.

The Dec. 1 wreck plunged the railroad into the worst period of its 30-year history: The 82 mph derailment was the first in which Metro-North passengers were killed.

Even though the crash was in New York, it involved the same basic structure that Metro-North maintains in Connecticut – including several Connecticut-owned passenger cars apparently on loan to the railroad’s Hudson Line. Malloy quickly demanded a plan for improvement.

The report delivered to him Tuesday afternoon pointedly credits Connecticut for investing in safety.

“Connecticut has consistently funded all of the Metro-North operating and maintenance budget requests, and has a record of increasing state and federal funding for the capital infrastructure,” Metro-North President Howard Permut wrote.

Metro-North told Malloy that it is reorganizing its track department, renting more track-inspection equipment, hiring extra managers, retrofitting older trains with more safety equipment, digging thousands of feet of drainage trenches and replacing thousands of track ties.

To ensure that engineers aren’t speeding, Metro-North is reviewing the data recorders from randomly selected trains, and is deploying supervisors to ride trains and even measure their speed with radar guns along routes, Permut said.

Permut acknowledged that after two trains were damaged in May by a derailment in Bridgeport, workers have changed the system of splicing track sections so they’re more secure. The railroad has increased its maintenance work so much that trains must go slower — delaying commuters. Permut said Metro-North plans to get back on its regular schedule by April, and estimates the work on the New Haven Line is costing Connecticut about $18 million.

“I am anxious to return to normal service for the thousands of commuters that use this service on a daily basis, and hope the MTA will beat their April deadline,” Malloy said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

Permut’s report didn’t directly address reports that Metro-North sustained an exodus of experienced inspection and track workers who became eligible for retirement as its 30-year anniversary approached. But his report to Malloy emphasized the railroad has hired more track managers to “increase oversight and expand technical expertise,” and added that the railroad “is also committed to fill vacancies immediately and provide for succession planning for retiring employees” by June.

Permut’s report said a power cable failure that crippled the system for more than a week will probably cost Connecticut $10 million unless Con Edison pays for passenger fare refunds. Otherwise, it is silent about the financial impact of Metro-North’s troubles.

In the derailments, several train cars were demolished, thousands of feet of track were torn up, ticket revenue was lost, and overtime bills poured in as workers struggled to get the system running again. Two major hot-weather and cold-weather service meltdowns also generated extra expenses; neither the railroad nor the state Department of Transportation has given a public accounting of what it all will cost Connecticut taxpayers and commuters.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, ranking member on the transportation committee, said she found the timing of the report “curious,” because it appeared less than 24 hours before her committee’s hearing. She said she’ll have many questions for transportation Commissioner James Redeker.

“Last year we paid $71 million to Metro-North to operate trains on our tracks. Do we evaluate this vendor? If we do, can we see the report?” Boucher asked. “When is the next option period in our contract with Metro-North? Have we ever considered finding another vendor? In my 17 years here, the DOT has always been reluctant to talk about the Metro-North contract.”

Redeker’s office said he was satisfied with the report.

However, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., one of Metro-North’s toughest critics, indicated the report isn’t enough.

“The MTA should provide specifics with deadlines for long-overdue safety features that could have prevented serious incidents like the crashes in Bridgeport and the Bronx,” he said. “I welcome the MTA report as a first step to be followed by more specifics in future regular reports that will overhaul and upgrade clearly lacking safety practices and culture.”