Federal Review Blasts New York’s Metro-North Railroad

The Metro-North commuter railroad has a loose approach to safety that is evident from inadequate track inspection to poor training to employees’ inappropriate use of cellphones, a federal agency said Friday.

The Federal Railroad Administration said Metro-North, which connects New York City to its northern suburbs and is the nation’s second-largest commuter railroad, had concentrated too much on sticking to its schedule.

The emphasis on on-time performance “led to a deficient safety culture that has manifested itself in increased risk and reduced safety,” the FRA said in a report to Congress. Employees reported pressure to rush when responding to signal failures and trouble getting needed track time to make essential repairs.

The agency ordered the railroad to immediately “prioritize safety above all else” and spread that idea throughout the railroad.

Calling its report “a severe assessment,” the FRA found that “no single department or office, including the Safety Department, proactively advocates for safety” at the railroad, which carried more than 843 million riders in 2013.

Metro North train derailment. Photo: NTSB
Metro North train derailment. Photo: NTSB

The review was prompted by a Dec. 1 derailment in the Bronx that killed four passengers and injured about 70 others. But it also cited three other accidents in the past year: a March derailment in Bridgeport, Conn., that injured more than 50 people; a May accident in West Haven, Conn., that killed a Metro-North worker; and a July freight train derailment in New York City that resulted in “significant” property damage.

It does not include another worker’s death on the tracks Monday in Manhattan.

Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti, who took office after the Bronx derailment, said the railroad is taking “aggressive actions to affirm that safety is the most important factor in railroad operations.”

Metro-North has already made some changes, modifying signals and posting speed limits. The train that derailed in the Bronx was going 82 mph as it entered a curve with a 30 mph speed limit, the National Transportation Safety Board has found.

The NTSB’s full report on the derailment is several months away.

The Railroad Administration dispatched 60 experts for 60 days and found that Metro-North operations need improvement in at least seven areas, ranging from track safety to engineer certification to dispatch.

It found that Metro-North’s rules addressing workers’ use of cellphones are confusing and that the use of phones “appeared to be commonplace and accepted by maintenance-of-way employees.” It suggested phone usage could be a distraction and asserted that employees used phones inappropriately.

The report said there was “excessive” overtime on the railroad and 100 vacancies in the maintenance-of-way force.

The FRA ordered Metro-North to submit plans of action within 60 days. And it said it would meet monthly with the railroad.

The agency added that it was “encouraged by the many good employees” who met with investigators. “Their dedication and desire to turn Metro-North into a safe, professional railroad serving the citizens of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will provide Metro-North’s new leadership with a solid foundation,” it said.