Metro-North Safety Commitment Questioned

Two weeks after Metro-North (M-N) Railroad’s fatal crash on December 1, questions continue to surface regarding the railroad’s attention to safety.  Significant changes in the line’s safety procedures were implemented startlingly quickly after the wreck, within days in some cases, leading observers to wonder why they couldn’t have been in effect earlier and prevented the disaster.  The changes were easy to implement because they were already part of the procedures at Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s other rail line, the Long Island Rail Road; some were already even in effect elsewhere on Metro-North, according to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (Dec. 16).

The perceived lack of attention to safety contrasts with Metro-North’s reputation as the best commuter line in the metropolitan area; in 2011 it became the first American railroad to win an international award for design excellence.  The cab signal system in use on the line, in which engineers in control of the train receive at their seat indications of the lineside signals outside the train, was used up to the time of the crash only to warn of red signals or trains ahead, not to enforce speed limits, although it has the capability to do so.  In contrast, both NJ Transit and Long Island Rail Road reported that they do use their cab signals to enforce speed limits, at least at some critical locations.  Asked why M-N didn’t follow suit, a spokeswoman responded that the system of requiring engineers to memorize the speed limits and other “physical characteristics” of the track over which they operated had “worked fine” for more than 30 years; the railroad had never experienced an accident-related passenger fatality in its 30 years of existence.

The crash on December 1 killed four riders and injured many others.  Why the lack of emphasis on safety?  MTA board member Charles G. Moerdler provided a possible answer: the railroad’s primary focus was on on-time performance, not on safety.  Both the MTA Board and the public press both M-N and the LIRR on “you’ve got to meet your schedules.”  He said, “That pressure becomes such that people do not do these things that would slow it down.”  However, M-N President Howard R. Permut, speaking at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing in November before the crash, said much the opposite: he said that safety was a critical factor in evaluating managers for possible promotion; on-time performance, while also considered, “doesn’t have the same importance,” he said.

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