Metro-North President Will Retire From Trouble-Plagued Railroad

January 7, 2014

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant
By DON STACOM and DAVID OWENS, [email protected]
The Hartford Courant
11:29 p.m. EST, January 6, 2014

With criticism mounting after a dizzying series of train wrecks, derailments and internal scandals, the beleaguered president of Metro-North Commuter Railroad has announced he’s retiring by the end of the month, a railroad spokeswoman confirmed Monday night.

Howard Permut’s departure comes as the nation’s busiest railroad faces uncommonly stern federal pressure to ramp up its safety systems following a devastating high-speed train wreck in December that killed four passengers. Just seven months earlier, a derailment and two-train collision injured more than 70 crew and passengers, and a controller mistakenly gave the green light to a train that roared through a work zone and killed a track supervisor.

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal first reported Permut’s retirement Monday, and both newspapers reported that he will be succeeded by Joseph Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

The change was welcomed by Metro-North’s critics in the General Assembly.

“To me, this is the culmination of the vast amount of problems this railroad is besieged with. It wasn’t just what everyone has talked about before, the aging infrastructure. It was poor management, complete negligence, a system with no accountability,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.

Boucher last month called for an independent oversight board for Metro-North, and recommended that Connecticut invite offers from other companies to run its heavily used New Haven commuter line along with the New Canaan, Waterbury and Danbury branches. She said Monday night that both suggestions still hold.

“Apparently the railroad has been searching for new leadership — it’s unfortunate this didn’t happen sooner and that Connecticut’s transportation department wasn’t paying more attention to how this company was being run,” she said. “An outside panel of experts could help this new individual — the current management team has failed miserably. The change that will be required is massive. A lot of credibility has been lost here.”

Rep. Antonio Guerrera, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s transportation committee, said he’ll ask Giulietti to brief legislators at the Capitol during the coming session.

“With a new person coming in, Metro-North obviously understands the major concerns that the state has had, the discrepancies in what’s been going on. Things have happened that even we didn’t know about,” Guerrera said. “I’m hoping he’ll come up to give us some insight on what will be going on now.”

Jim Cameron, who was a longtime watchdog of the railroad before leaving as head of the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council last year, said he hopes the change will get operations back on course.

“It is not surprising that Mr. Permut is stepping down, especially after the past year of deadly accidents and operational issues at the railroad,” Cameron said. “In his long tenure at the railroad he deserves a lot of credit for many accomplishments, including the replacement of our aging fleet of rail cars with the new M-8 cars. But as president, he is also ultimately responsible for what has gone so terribly wrong.

“I would hope that his replacement will be able to rejuvenate the railroad with a sense of greater transparency and accountability to all stakeholders, especially commuters,” Cameron said.

Permut, who has been president of Metro-North since 2008, was the public face of the railroad during a major service meltdown two winters ago and the potentially disastrous stranding of a train in 100-degree heat. But he kept a low profile after most of the crises that struck this year: A botched power station maintenance project froze New Haven line service for days, two trains crashed in Bridgeport in May and a diesel-powered train hurtled off the tracks in the Bronx on Dec. 1.

Last month, federal regulators launched a 60-day in-depth safety assessment of Metro-North, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., publicly called on railroad management to reorganize operations. The Dec. 1 accident marked the first customer fatality in Metro-North’s three-decade history. Its parent organization, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, called it a “black day” for the railroad.

The Federal Railroad Administration has come under fire from several senators and members of Congress for not keeping even tighter controls over Metro-North after the Bridgeport crash.

The railroad contends that it is conducting its own self-assessment, saying “We have been engaged in a top-to-bottom review of existing practices since the May derailment.”