Metro-North: A Decade of Defects [CT Post]

April 7, 2014

Article as it appeared in the Connecticut Post

Federal inspectors over the last decade found more than 7,100 defects and deficiencies in the Metro-North Railroad system — but records show regulators only launched a full investigation of the railway after two high-profile accidents last year.

The inspection reports between 2003 and 2013 reveal a level of defects not previously known and a range of problems at the nation’s second busiest commuter railroad involving all aspects of the operations, including tracks, passenger and worker safety, signs and train control, alcohol and drug policies, operating practices, locomotives and engineer certifications.

Inspectors last year found broken joint bars and loose or missing rail braces, which hold tracks to ties underneath, in Stamford, Bridgeport, Norwalk and New Haven.

They found numerous instances of passenger emergency equipment not being in place in New Haven and Stamford.

Metro-North was faulted in 2013 for not revoking an engineer’s certification as required by federal law, records show.

The federal reports also show that after a derailed Metro-North train collided with a passing train last May near the Bridgeport-Fairfield line — and following a rail worker’s death later that month after he hit by a train while working on closed tracks — the FRA significantly increased its Metro-North inspection program.

Those stepped-up inspections uncovered cracked or broken rail bars, which tie track sections together and are the same type of defect blamed for the 2013 derailment that injured 72 passengers.

Overall, the reports obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media under the Freedom of Information law paint a startling picture of widespread neglect and operational problems within the Metro-North system in Connecticut and New York.

“If (Metro-North) knew all of this, it’s negligence,” said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, the ranking member of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee. “This is outrageous — it’s horrible. What you are providing goes along with a lack of management and oversight. I’m outraged –but I’m not surprised.”

Similar issues were highlighted last month when the results of “Operation Deep Dive,” a 60-day investigation of Metro-North, was released. Federal regulators blasted the railroad for focusing on on-time performance at the expense of safety and maintenance.

Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for Metro-North, said the railroad generally does better during FRA inspections than most railroads. The FRA also scrutinizes the nation’s busiest rail line, the Long Island Rail Road.

She acknowledged Metro-North receives FRA inspection reports.

“Every time a defect is cited, we fix them,” Anders said. “It’s FRA’s role to find defects and it is our role to fix defects.”

“All of FRA’s random inspections are intended to find and root out problems,” she said. “We take them very seriously and we use them in a constant effort to improve operations.”

Kevin Thompson, FRA’s associate administrator, said that inspections during 2013 uncovered five times as many issues per 100 miles of track than did similar inspections of other commuter railroads.

“While that is a significant concern for us, it doesn’t mean the railroad is unsafe to ride,” he said. “We would never allow an unsafe operation to function, and Metro-North has been very responsive to mitigating the exceptions and defects identified during our inspections by reducing the speed of trains when necessary.”

Tracking troubles

Inspectors examining Metro-North’s tracks routinely found broken or cracked joint bars, loose rail braces, missing bolts and joint bars with two or less bolts holding it together. A joint bar can require up to six bolts.

During the stepped up 2013 inspections, regulators found seven instances of broken or cracked joint bars; 32 examples of loose or missing adjustable rail braces on tracks in Bridgeport, Waterbury, Stamford, Norwalk and New Haven, and 15 examples of two or less bolts in a joint bar.

“We conducted a thorough geometry car inspection last year following the Bridgeport accident,” said the FRA’s Thompson. “Generally, the results of that inspection documented that Metro-North has as many as five times the number of exceptions per 100 miles of track compared to other commuter lines in the region.” Anders said many of the track defects cited in federal inspection reports are “normal stuff” found on a regular basis. “That’s why we inspect twice a week. That’s all normal stuff.”

“The fact that FRA found thousands of defects over 10 years is not unusual in the industry, but for the lay person, the numbers can seem excessive,” Anders said.

Inspectors found engineers running trains without the proper certifications, hand brakes not being properly applied to stationary trains, missing passenger safety equipment, broken passenger seats, defective items within the components which power electric trains, locomotives leaking oil, defective switching devices and a failure to conduct required tests of equipment.

In 2003, inspectors found a locomotive with keys in it and no crew members in sight.

“Anyone could have moved train,” an inspector wrote in his report.

Inspectors also found many instances of Metro-North failing to inspect tracks as required and a failure to report information to federal regulators.

Record keeping was also often cited as inadequate, including logging hours worked. Railway employees are limited in the length and frequency of shifts they can work.

Drugs and alcohol

The FRA additionally looked at how the railroad complied with federal drug and alcohol testing rules and policies, how it trained its workers and how it conducted its own safety tests.

In one report, an FRA inspector in 2010 asked why a certain Metro-North employee was excluded from drug testing.

In 2013, inspectors recommended violations, which can result in fines, for failing to follow federal procedures for conducting drug and alcohol testing and failing to meet random drug testing requirements. In 2011, inspectors cited two defects for not following federal procedures for conducting drug and alcohol testing. In 2010, there were seven alcohol and drug defects, including improperly allowing an employee to return to service and for total number of tests being below minimum testing rate.

Anders recalled that in 2010 an employee was cited for calling in sick during a scheduled drug case. Following the FRA notices, she said Metro-North “re-instructed” staff on how to collect drug and alcohol samples.

She said in 2013 Metro-North conducted 850 alcohol and drug tests beyond those required after accidents.

Deep Dive report

James Cameron, a longtime commuter advocate who now heads the Commuter Action Group, said “the FRA reports are shocking, but not unexpected.”

“They document a railroad in rapid decline and, in retrospect, are quite frightening,” Cameron said. “Things were so bad in so many places — accidents like the Bridgeport derailment could have happened elsewhere.”

But he said the statistics alone don’t explain why Metro North, once one of the nation’s best railroads, fell so far.

“The statistics don’t explain why things were so bad,” he said. “The reasons were hinted at in the Operation Deep Dive report: putting on-time performance ahead of safety. But how conditions got so bad, so fast, still needs explanation.”

The increased federal inspections last May marked the start of a wide ranging investigation into Metro-North dubbed “Operation Deep Dive,” a 60-day FRA review of the railroad.

The result was an FRA report that found Metro-North lacked a commitment to safety, delayed inspections and repairs, failed to adequately train workers and failed to provide sufficient time to make repairs when improvements were authorized.

“There was a clear overemphasis on on-time performance to the detriment of safety and ineffective and inadequate training,” FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo said as the report was released.

Although the Deep Dive investigation was prompted by the Bridgeport derailment and death of the West Haven rail worker, those were not the only problems which plagued Metro-North over the last year or so.

Four people died in the Bronx, N.Y., last year after a train derailed while traveling too fast around a curve, the result of an engineer apparently falling asleep. Trains during the winter lost power, leaving passengers shivering in the cold.

The federal inspection reports show that the FRA’s initial response to the Bridgeport derailment and death of a rail worker in West Haven was to increase inspections.

In January 2013, FRA inspectors conducted five inspections of the Metro-North system; in April, inspectors filed 37 reports.

By July, the frequency of inspections rose to 52 reports; in October, federal inspectors filed 73 reports and 89 in December.

During 2013, federal inspectors logged 1,001 defects during 500 inspections of the Metro-North system. The last time more than 1,000 defects were found in a single year was 2004, when 313 inspections revealed 1,053 defects, FRA records show.

Between 2003 and 2013, FRA inspectors conducted an average of 301 inspections per year and found an average of 595 defects, federal records show.

The dramatic fluctuations in the number of federal inspections conducted year to year — even as regulators were finding increased defects in operations, rolling stock and track conditions — raises questions about the FRA’s oversight.

Thompson acknowledged inspections of Metro-North were increased after the Bridgeport accident.

“Certainly, that would turn our attention to more inspections on that property,” he said. “That became more a center of attention for our efforts; that was a driving factor.”

Watching the defectives

Cameron, the commuter advocate, said Connecticut’s Department of Transportation is not without blame when trying to figure out why Metro-North was allowed to rack up such an extensive record of defects.

“They should have known about these safety issues and pushed Metro-North to repair them,” Cameron said.

“For over 19 years, when I served on the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, I kept asking DOT how it evaluated Metro-North’s operations, what criteria it examined to determine that the railroad was performing well, and never got a reply,” Cameron said.

“DOT would always tout Metro-North’s on-time statistics but never shared any FRA reports,” he said. “Did DOT know about the FRA inspections over the years? Did they find them acceptable? Why were they never shared with the public?”

A DOT spokesman did not respond to a request for comment from the department.

Thompson, the FRA associate administrator, defended his agency’s scrutiny of Metro-North over the years, saying “we have pointed out where exceptions and defects are occurring.”

Boucher said the volume of defects identified in the FRA inspection reports means taxpayers are going to have to spend big money to improve the railway.

“It’s going to have to be repaired and there will have to be costly upgrades that have been deferred. Connecticut cannot continue to raid its special transportation fund,” Boucher said, referring to the state’s practice of spending money dedicated for transportation on routine budget expenses.

Hearst Connecticut Media recently reported that since 1985 the state has spent more on cosmetic upgrades — new train stations and parking garages, for example — than on improving tracks and infrastructure.

Boucher acknowledged the state’s spending priorities must change in order to focus on improving the Metro-North line.