M-N: Heavy Demand May Have Affected Safety

Responding to a Federal Railway Administration (FRA) critique of the railroad’s “safety culture”, which the FRA characterized as “deficient”, Metro-North (M-N) Railroad president Joseph J. Giulietti raised the possibility that the line’s attempt to cope with mushrooming ridership may have negatively affected safety.  Quoted in reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (March 15), Giulietti said of mushrooming demand, “That’s a fantastic problem to have . . . if you’re a well-run railroad.” He said that M-N would study whether the increasing ridership had caused it to neglect safety.  The total number of weekday trains the railroad operates increased to 690 in 2013, a 15% increase over 2004.  “At some point, this culture turned into one of, ‘How many trains can we get in there and how fast can those trains get in there?’,” Giulietti said.

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Feds Hit Metro-North on Safety

A Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) study of operations at Metro-North Railroad has concluded that the rail line suffers from a “deficient safety culture” that emphasized on-time performance while not putting enough priority on the safety of riders and employees.  The report, resulting from an FRA inquiry dubbed “Operation Deep Dive,” was reported in The New York Times (March 14) by Matt Flegenheimer, who also appeared on WNYC radio to discuss the findings.  Prompting the federal inquiry was a fatal derailment on December 1 in which a Poughkeepsie-New York express attempted to round a sharp curve at well over the speed limit.  A fatality March 10 on the railroad’s Park Avenue elevated trestle in Manhattan, in which a track worker was killed by a train, again brought the railroad’s practices into the public eye.  Among the practices cited by the report was a tendency for the line’s operations center to pressure workers to respond quickly to maintenance issues such as signal failures that would have an impact on on-time performance.  The workers said they did not get enough time to properly perform their work.

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M-N, NJT Snarled on Successive Days

Outbound New York commuters in the evening rush were seriously affected by problems on successive days.  First, on Thursday, January 23, Metro-North’s entire system ground to a halt for about 2 hours, starting at 7:45 p.m., according to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer and Emma G. Fitzsimmons in The New York Times (Jan. 24). The railroad’s computerized traffic control system failed after technicians attempted to replace a power supply, an operation that the railroad’s president later said was ill-advised and normally conducted only when traffic is sparse.  All trains were advised by radio to proceed only to the next station, and some were unable even to get that far: one train was stranded on the railroad’s Harlem River bridge, unable to proceed; the passengers were unable to leave the crowded train.

Then, on Friday, January 24, a smoke condition and apparently a disabled train in the East River tunnels (which connect Penn Station with the Long Island Rail Road and are Amtrak’s route to New England and the Sunnyside yard in Queens used by Amtrak, the LIRR, and NJ Transit) led to a cascading series of delays.  The LIRR, the heaviest user of the tunnels, managed to escape with only a few trains cancelled and modest delays reported to be only 10 minutes.  In contrast, NJ Transit was the worst affected, reporting major delays generally of 45 to 60 minutes, starting at about 6 p.m. and not clearing up until about 9:30.  One train to Trenton was reported as being up to 2 hours behind schedule; an opening of the Portal drawbridge in the Jersey Meadows may also have contributed to the snafu.  The LIRR was likely spared the worst of the delays because there are 4 tracks in the East River tunnels; NJ Transit on the other hand, must squeeze all its trains into the 2 tracks under the Hudson River.  At peak times, the Hudson tubes operate at full capacity, so even a minor delay can affect many trains and requires hours to get back to normal.

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Cuomo Backs Hell Gate Transit Plan

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his State of the State address on January 8, included a proposal for Metro-North service from the Bronx to New York Penn Station via the Hell Gate Bridge, a possibility that Metro-North and its parent MTA  has been studying for years.  Cuomo was unequivocal in his address, saying that it will happen, according to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (January 9).  The proposed service would involve new stations to be built in the Bronx along Amtrak’s Hell Gate line, used by through trains between New York and New England, but without local service for many decades.  Stations would be built at Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park, and Co-Op City; the trains would apparently continue on to New Rochelle and points farther in Westchester and possibly Connecticut.  Service could connect Bronx stations to Penn Station in as little as 30 minutes; the proposed line would not, however, connect with subway lines in the Bronx.  Problems that would have to be overcome would include finding space for the new trains at Penn Station, already operating at capacity in peak hours.  Some relief might be possible when the Long Island Rail Road starts diverting trains to Grand Central Terminal, but that is not scheduled to happen before 2019.  Some Long Island legislators reportedly have looked askance at letting Metro-North trains from the Bronx and Westchester compete with Long Island Rail Road trains at Penn Station.

Read the complete article (limited access) here.

Metro-North Hit by Worker Fraud Charges

Metro-North Railroad, still reeling from the fatal train wreck on December 1 and consequent operating changes forced by federal inquiries, now is contending with an investigation by the inspector general of its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (Dec. 19). The investigation, covering a period earlier in 2013, found that every foreman on the railroad covered by the investigation “abused his position by engaging in nonwork related activities during business hours”, simultaneously involving subordinates in the scams and filing inaccurate time sheets.  The audit appears to be more of a sampling than a comprehensive investigation, as only 8 individuals were investigated; still, the fact that all 8 were found to be at fault suggests that a wide pattern of fraudulent behavior within the railroad’s personnel may exist.  Specific incidents cited included long trips during working hours for nonbusiness purposes, including trips to Pennsylvania to buy cigarettes and, apparently, fireworks (the work locations of the individuals were not reported; it should be noted that one Metro-North location, Port Jervis, lies at the Pennsylvania-New York border); another individual was noted as driving aimlessly for hours while collecting overtime.  A previous investigation, reported in September, focused on machinists and their supervisors, and reported work days spent largely at fast-food chains and a hardware store.

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Charges Unlikely in Metro-North Wreck

After 4 passengers died in the Metro-North wreck on December 1, suspicion rapidly focused on the engineer after it became apparent that he either dozed off or was in some sort of “highway hypnosis” state before the crash—but does that put him at fault, or is he just human?  According to reporting online by Murray Weiss on the Huffington Post (Dec. 16), investigators have yet to turn up any evidence that the engineer committed any crime, even if he dozed off; it turns out, surprise! falling asleep is not a crime.  So far, it appears that he was home all day the day before the accident, went to bed at 8:30 p.m. the night before his early-morning job shift began, got a good night’s sleep, and was alert when he went on duty.  Drug tests are not complete, but investigators don’t expect to find anything there, either.

A major U.S.A. rail passenger wreck in California years ago led to major changes in future rail safety, and was caused by the engineer’s using a cell phone instead of watching the track.  In the Metro-North wreck, however, investigators have determined that there was no cell phone use; in fact, the engineer’s cell phone was turned off.  The engineer is a volunteer firefighter in his home town and reportedly devastated by the accident; he has cooperated fully with the investigation.  He has an unblemished, 11-year record in running trains.  Summing up, a law enforcement source said that “falling asleep, by itself, is fundamentally not a crime, not even for a motorman driving a train.  There was nothing mitigating here.  He was not drunk, on the phone, or out partying the night before, and he went to sleep at a reasonable hour.”

If the engineer is not at fault, who is?  Attention is likely to focus instead on management and operating procedures.  Human failure is always a possibility in any endeavour.  At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of those managing human resources to develop systems to mitigate risk from all sources, even including people falling asleep on the job.  It’s easy to say “he’s at fault, the rules say he can’t fall asleep,” but people are people, and people are known to fall asleep.  Management can hardly say that this is a new concept. to them.

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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.

Read the complete article (limited access) at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/16/nyregion/metro-north-seen-lagging-in-protection-against-crash.html

US Orders Metro-North Safety Review

Following the fatal train wreck on December 1, the United States Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on December 12 ordered an “extraordinarily rare” review of Metro-North Railroad’s operations and “safety culture”, according to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (Dec. 13).  The FRA dubbed the review, expected to last 60 days, “Operation Deep Dive.”  The review will cover all aspects of railroad operations, including procedures at control centers; oversight of locomotive engineers; and maintenance of track, signals, and rolling stock.

The FRA said that the review was in consequence not only of the December 1 disaster, but also of several other incidents this year, including the collision of 2 trains on the New Haven Line in May; the death of a worker a few weeks later (also on the New Haven line) after a trainee dispatcher apparently improperly authorized train movements over track where the worker was working; and a July freight train derailment close to the site of the December 1 wreck.  Such comprehensive safety assessments have been conducted only rarely; the last ones were on the CSX Transportation freight railroad in 2006 and on the  Union Pacific in 1998.  The new safety review follows emergency orders a week earlier requiring Metro-North to institute changes in its signal and control systems, and requiring an extra person in operating cabs at critical points until the changes are in place.

Read the complete story (limited access) at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/13/nyregion/us-orders-sweeping-safety-review-of-metro-north.html?_r=0

Metro-North to Upgrade Signals After Wreck

Acting quickly on December 8 after the Federal Railway Administration ordered enhanced safety precautions following the fatal Metro-North crash on December 1, Metro-North Railroad said it had enhanced its signal systems to warn trains approaching the slow-speed curve at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx.  In addition, if the train is within the curve and exceeding the 30-mph speed limit, brakes will be applied, according to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer and Vivian Yee in The New York Times (December 9).  The Federal order also required Metro-North to institute enhanced safety precautions at all places where the speed limit drops by 20 mph or more; Metro-North said it would comply by reducing the maximum allowable speed in advance of such places, so that the speed would not drop by more than 20 mph.

One possible contributing factor in the Dec. 1 wreck was the lack of an “alerter” system in the engineer’s cab; such systems sound alarms if the engineer does not make any change in the controls for a specified interval of time.  Such systems were already in service on about two-thirds of the Metro-North fleet; Metro-North promised that they would be in service in all cabs within one year.

The federal order further ordered Metro-North have a second person in the cab of all trains to verbally confirm that speed limits are followed at dangerous locations; Metro-North said they would comply by having conductors stand with the engineer at such places.  If the train layout makes this impossible, the engineer and conductor would communicate by radio; this might be required where separate locomotives are at the front of the train, making access from the train cars difficult.  The long-term solution will be automatic systems to control speeds at curves; Metro-North said that their technical staff is developing plans to automatically enforce speeds at curves by March, and at drawbridges on the New Haven Line by September.

Read the complete article (limited access) at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/09/nyregion/senators-propose-cameras-inside-cabs-of-trains-post-metro-north-accident.html

Safety Board Reports on Crash Investigation

The National Transportation Safety Board’s on-site team investigating the December 1 fatal crash on Metro-North Railroad has completed its initial work and has returned to Washington; it may return to gather additional information.  On December 9, it released a report on progress so far:  Inspection of the train that crashed has uncovered no mechanical anomalies; no problems were found in the track or signal systems, either. The investigation included shop testing of critical safety equipment.  The team inspected the “dead man switch”, a foot pedal that the engineer must keep depressed to allow the train to keep moving; no problems were found.  Inspection of the tracks in the vicinity of the crash revealed no visibility problems.

Since no mechanical problems have been found, the NTSB believes that the accident would have been prevented had “positive train control” (PTC) technology been in service on the railroad; the NTSB has long favored installation of PTC, which requires the engineer to slow the train to an appropriate speed when approaching restricted areas, such as the low-speed curve where the train crashed.  The team also interviewed all crew members of the train that crashed, and reported that all have been cooperative and reported a normal run until shortly before the “derailment sequence”.  Drug test results and inspection of cellphone records are still pending.

In an interesting new development, investigators interviewed the engineer of a train that passed the ill-fated southbound train at 7:11 a.m., just minutes before the crash.  (The other train was likely to be the 6:43 a.m. departure from Grand Central Terminal for Poughkeepsie.)  That engineer reported that the headlight on the train which crashed minutes later was not dimmed by its engineer as it passed; railroad regulations require trains to dim their headlights when meeting.  This observation would reinforce the hypothesis that the engineer of the train that crashed was inattentive before the incident.

Additional tasks the team will undertake include interviews with first responders and with passengers who survived the crash; the team also plans to take three-dimensional scans of the damaged train equipment, in order to make detailed measurements and to digitally re-create the crash sequence.