Metro-North officials: Timeliness interfered with safety [CT Mirror]

February 28, 2014

Article as it appeared in the Connecticut Mirror

Efforts to ensure trains ran on time likely contributed to the accidents and other safety-related mishaps that plagued the Metro-North Commuter Railroad last year, the service’s top brass told state lawmakers Thursday.

And efforts to enhance safety could lead to more delays in the future.

But administrators also said the nation’s second-busiest commuter line is in the midst of a historic overhaul of safety and maintenance programs, and pledged to keep Connecticut officials apprised of that process in the months to come.

“Metro-North had a terrible 2013, with derailments, a major power outage, a drop in on-time performance and other problems,” Thomas F. Prendergast, chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority told the legislature’s Transportation Committee during a special hearing. “And as a public transportation professional for over 35 years now, I know – as well as anyone – that you’re only as good as your last rush hour.”

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An authority created by the New York legislature, the MTA administers the Metro-North line, which serves communities between New Haven and New York City. Connecticut contracts with Metro-North for service, but the state doesn’t hold any seats on New York’s MTA.

“What went wrong? It’s a good question,” said Joseph J. Giulietti, who recently began as Metro-North’s president. “And while I don’t have all the answers yet, I can tell you a few things for sure. First, we will get to the bottom of it. And today I commit to returning to this committee with those answers.”

Connecticut lawmakers have been asking questions about the commuter service since a string of mishaps began about nine months ago, including:

A May 17 derailment in Bridgeport that caused a two-train collision, injuring 60 people and temporarily blocking service between Boston and New York.

On May 28 a train was misrouted onto a track that was out of service in West Haven.

A Sept. 25 power cable failure in Mount Vernon, N.Y., disrupted the rail line for 12 days.

On Dec. 1, seven cars and a diesel locomotive derailed in the Bronx, killing four people and injuring 65. Three of the seven cars flipped on their sides.

And on Jan. 23, Metro-North halted all operations for about two hours because of a system-wide computer problem that affected railway signaling.

But while lawmakers generally praised Metro-North officials for their candor, they warned that immediate improvement in safety and service is needed.

“What I’m hearing is anger, lots of anger,” said Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, told rail administrators.

And while Leone told Prendergast and Guilietti he anticipated their pledges to enhance safety, the overall level of communication between Connecticut and Metro-North must improve. “What I’m hearing is what I expected to hear. … But I’m now in a position that I can’t defend you or the service that is being provided.”

Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton, the ranking GOP senator on the Transportation Committee, is one of the legislature’s strongest advocates for reforming the state’s contract with Metro-North.

Technically Connecticut is about halfway through a 60-year deal, but it has provisions that allow the agreement to be revisited every five years, with the next option in 2015.

That contract “could be perceived as woefully outdated,” said Boucher, who added Connecticut should insist on performance standards, monitoring requirements and penalties to ensure proper service. Many riders feel the state “hasn’t kept Metro-North’s feet to the fire,” she said.

Though safety is the highest priority, Boucher said service disruptions and poor quality have a huge impact on the Connecticut economy, adding that the transportation corridor along the state’s southwestern shoreline “is the lifeblood of our economy.

“When it fails it has an incredible impact on the region.”

One economic analysis concluded that the nearly two-week service disruption that began in late September cost the state’s economy more than $60 million while inconveniencing about 100,000 rail customers.

Rep. David A. Scribner of Scribner, the ranking House Republican on the transportation panel, added that “we know we don’t have a true voice on the (Metro-North) board.”

“We’re asking the people at Metro-North to fulfill their obligations to the people of Connecticut,” said Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee.

Since the Bridgeport derailment, Prendergast and Giulietti said, Metro-North has:

Hired a research consultant to assess its safety efforts and formed a new safety panel with nationally recognized railroad experts.

Increased track inspections.

Installed new cameras on cars to monitor speeds.

Created a new confidential close-call reporting system in cooperation with federal railroad officials to allow Metro-North staff to anonymously report excessive speeds or other unsafe conditions.

And urged state and federal lawmakers to increase public-sector investments in Metro-North’s aging infrastructure.

“We will get back to the basics of good railroading,” Giulietti said, adding that the next step will come on March 3 when it releases a summary of a 100-day plan for further safety enhancements.

But Metro-North officials also warned that could mean slower rail times.

Though much of the investigating into last year’s mishaps is ongoing, it is likely that one recommendation will be to add time – and reduce speed – on certain trips, Giulietti said, adding that federal regulators already have added some new speed restrictions on some routes.

“Maybe there had been a focus that the top priority had to be on-time performance,” he said. “It is probably number 2, but safety is number 1.”