Metro-North responds to Deep Dive report

May 19, 2014

Article as it appeared in the Connecticut Post

Metro-North Railroad on Thursday announced a sweeping series of reforms designed to improve the safety and reliability of the beleaguered railroad.

The plan includes slowing trains down, installing positive train control systems to halt trains before they crash and ensuring that workers place safety over all else — including on-time performance.

“Safety is the top priority for Metro-North Railroad, above even on-time performance,” said Metro-North Railroad President Joseph Giulietti.

“We have rolled up our sleeves and gotten to work immediately to make these critical improvements a reality,” he said.

For the most part, Metro-North’s plan follows demands by federal regulators after a train on the Bridgeport-Fairfield line derailed last May 17 — a year ago Saturday — and struck an oncoming train, injuring dozens of passengers. A Bronx train a few months later derailed after the engineer apparently fell asleep, killing four people.

The two accidents prompted a wide-ranging federal investigation, dubbed “Operation Deep Dive,” and led the Federal Railroad Administration to conclude Metro-North was more interested in on-time performance than safety.

The FRA blasted the railroad for delaying inspections and repairs, failing to adequately train workers and failing to provide sufficient time to make repairs when improvements were authorized.

Kevin Thompson, an FRA spokesman, on Thursday said regulators will carefully review Metro-North’s progress to date.

“Safety is the number one priority of the Federal Railroad Administration and we are pleased that Metro North has submitted its progress report following Operation Deep Dive before its 60-day deadline,” Thompson said.

“We will closely review its contents as we continue working with Metro-North to improve its safety regime through unannounced inspections, audits and other enforcement activities,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., issued a statement saying “Deep Dive” had been a “searing indictment,” particularly of Metro-North’s management.

“The response from Metro-North issued today appears to indicate an understanding on the part of Metro-North leadership that serious reforms in safety, training and organizational culture are needed to regain the trust of its customers,” Blumenthal said. “Where measures have already begun, including issuance of more realistic on-time performance expectations, safer speed controls and increased compliance checks, I welcome these important, however belated, first steps.

“However, there is substantial work still to be done, and I remain concerned that deadlines for serious infrastructure and technology improvements remain amorphous, including adoption of a close call reporting system, installation of alerters and cameras and positive train control systems.”

James Cameron, a long-time commuter advocate who now heads the Commuter Action Group, said much of Metro-North’s announcement was required by the FRA and offered little that’s new.

“This announcement seems more of a paperwork formality, replying to the FRA, than any new reassurance to riders that the trains are again safe,” Cameron said.

“The FRA Deep Dive report came out March 14; his latest missive, two months later, seems to include nothing new beyond what they said then,” Cameron said.

The FRA directed Metro-North to undertake 27 specific actions and on Thursday the railroad said it had completed 14 of those actions, is making progress on five others, and has a training strategy in place to carry out eight additional requirements.

Metro-North acknowledged the reforms “address factors identified during several serious safety incidents over the last year, as well as issues identified by an in-depth Federal Railroad Administration review of its operating practices that took place this past winter. The reforms touch virtually every aspect of Metro-North’s operations.”

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton and ranking member of the state Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said only time will tell if Metro-North is really committed to improvement.

“It’s a whole lot of promises and it’s good they are working on it,” Boucher said. “But we will have to see the changes to see if it works out. It’s what they get done — not what they put out in press releases.”

Metro-North said it’s reaching out to workers so they understand safety is the first priority. The railroad said it’s also reorganizing the safety department, centralizing training, outfitting trains with “alerter” systems, which require a periodic response from engineers to ensure they are awake, and speeding up installation of positive train control.

The high-tech PTC system monitors a train’s speed and operation and can take control if necessary, even shutting down the train. Most experts believe the system could have prevented the deadly Bronx crash last year.

Metro-North said installation of PTC is being “expedited.” Federal regulators years ago called for the system on all trains but it has been resisted by railroads because of cost concerns.

Other reforms include new employee protection systems to reduce risk to track workers, confidential reporting policies so workers can report unsafe conditions and automatic track inspections to better assess conditions.

Metro-North said it’s also purchasing inward and outward facing cameras for all trains designed to assist in accident or incident investigations and autonomous track monitoring systems to provide continuous information about the rails.