Metro-North Failed To Report Incident After Woman Killed By Train [Hartford Courant]

January 3, 2014

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

Blumenthal: ‘The MTA has talked the talk about safety. The question is, are they actually doing it?’
By DON STACOM, [email protected]
The Hartford Courant

6:04 PM EST, January 2, 2014

After Metro-North this week failed to tell anyone after a train killed a pedestrian on a Westport bridge, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal is calling for more immediate safety measures at the trouble-plagued railroad.

Before the latest accident, Metro-North was under heavy criticism from congressmen in New York and state lawmakers in Connecticut following a horrendous two-year series of massive service failures, crashes, derailments and operational blunders.

The nation’s busiest railroad spent much of December reassuring commuters, federal inspectors and state legislators that it has ramped up safety precautions systemwide. Yet it ended the year with another public relations fiasco: On Dec. 26, a train hit something substantial enough for the crew to stop, climb out onto the Saugatuck River bridge and look around the front car for 20 minutes. After finding nothing, the crew members left — and neither they nor Metro-North dispatchers notified police.

The railroad says the crew would have called for help immediately if there was an indication that anyone had been struck. But that evening, there simply was no sign, Metro-North says: It was dark and foggy at the time, neither of the two crew members in the front car saw the victim, and there was no blood when they examined the outside of the train.

The next day, a kayaker found Annette White, 45, floating in the Saugatuck River. Police didn’t make the connection until days later when they got a call from a passenger who had been on the train; he learned about the death from news reports, and told investigators about the emergency stop.

Detectives then found surveillance tapes from the evening of Dec. 26 that showed the train stopping on the bridge as crew members searched the tracks. Investigators searched the bridge and found White’s cellphone and one of her earrings on a pier directly beneath where the train had stopped.

Westport detectives have classified the death as accidental, and turned over the investigation to Metropolitan Transportation Authority police. Although the crew couldn’t confirm that a person had been hit and the victim apparently was trespassing, Metro-North should have notified police, railroad critics say.

“I was astonished and appalled to learn there’s no reporting requirement. It seems to ignore basic common sense — if you hit something that could have been a person, you’d call the local police or the MTA police,” Blumenthal said Thursday.

Blumenthal wrote to MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast urging that the railroad immediately adopt a rule of notifying local police whenever a train hits an object that might be a person.

Metro-North is already operating under emergency orders imposed by federal regulators after a horrific 82-mph wreck in the Bronx that killed four passengers on Dec. 1. Just seven months earlier, more than 70 passengers and crew were hurt in a derailment and crash in Bridgeport. The Federal Railroad Administration has dispatched a team of safety experts to find out exactly what’s going wrong and how to stop it.

“This series of tragedies has to be more than a coincidence,” Blumenthal said. “This tragic incident demonstrates dramatically a continued failure in safety policies and culture. It represents a systemic failure.”

“The MTA has talked the talk about safety,” Blumenthal said. “The question is, are they actually doing it? The talk about heightened awareness and a (railroadwide) safety stand-down is comforting, but this undermines the trust that they’re actually implementing it.”

The railroad issued a statement Thursday saying that crews followed all standard procedures.

“Train personnel stopped the train, got protection from RTC (Rail Traffic Control) to be able to exit onto the tracks, then thoroughly examined both the train equipment and the surrounding area but found no indication that a person had been struck,” the railroad said. “The train was examined again upon arrival at Grand Central Terminal but there was no evidence of a person being struck.”

Metro-North and its parent agency, the New York-based MTA, also have come under criticism from Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton. She has suggested that the state consider finding someone else to run its commuter railroad.

This week, she urged Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to push for independent oversight of Metro-North’s campaign to raise its standards and regain public trust. She wants the MTA to appoint a watchdog board of rail specialists.

“As a Metro-North customer and the major contributor to its operating budget, the state of Connecticut should appeal to the MTA on behalf of its commuters,” Boucher wrote in a letter to Malloy. “This board would oversee rail operations at all levels, including top management functions, until it determines that Metro-North is once again functioning satisfactorily.”