Essex2045 Plan Moves Forward

On December 15th, I attended a virtual meeting of a Stakeholder Advisory Committee on the Essex2045 plan for the next 20 years of transportation in Essex County. In a study funded by the North Jersey Transportation Planning Association, Mercer Planning Associates, the consultants running the program, had conducted surveys and hosted 2 pop-up kiosks and participated in 2 safety fairs with University Hospital. The events were held in October and early November in Orange, West Orange, Irvington, and Newark. In West Orange and Irvington, a complex intersection was chosen and a demo “parklet” was outlined as a feature to gauge the reactions of passers-by. Study personnel were on the scene to explain the project and gather reactions on sticky notes. Overall, those reactions were positive, with more than half wanting to keep the demonstration projects installed permanently. Many people were pleased to see attention paid to underserved locations, emphasizing the need to make interventions in these areas a priority.

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Essex County Transportation Plan 2045 Comes to Lackawanna Coalition

On October 24, David Antonio, Director of Planning for Essex County, came to the Lackawanna Coalition meeting to present Essex County’s “Essex 2045” transportation project. The project is to create a plan for all aspects of transportation in Essex County and to have a vision for what Essex Country transportation will be like in the next 20 years. A grant for this project came from North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority. The previous plan was the Essex County Comprehensive Plan of June 2013.

Input on improving public transportation was, of course, the reason for Mr. Antonio’s invitation. Gathering of public input comes through a web-based application via survey questions and a mapping tool. A major point of the presentation was pedestrian safety. Bloomfield Avenue is one of the busiest and most dangerous streets in New Jersey. Although upgraded infrastructure has been installed on Bloomfield Avenue in recent years, more work needs to be done to ensure pedestrian safety.

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NJT Plans Safety Review

In part reacting to the recent fatal train wreck on Metro-North Railroad, NJ Transit announced on April 8 that they would spend half a million dollars on an outside consultant to review NJT’s safety practices, according to media reports.  The railroad also plans a 17-member internal committee to monitor safety.  Investigations of Metro-North’s safety practices after the wreck yielded multiple criticisms of Metro-North, including assertions that Metro-North lacked a “safety culture” and placed on-time performance ahead of safety.  NJ Transit has had a good record on train operations safety; a head-on collision of two trains in 1996 on NJT caused the death of two locomotive engineers and one passenger and led to installation of advanced safety systems on a number of NJT’s rail lines. That accident was eventually attributed to color blindness in one engineer; advanced train control systems might have prevented his train from passing the red signal that he apparently failed to perceive.

PATH May Miss Safety Target

Despite an ongoing weekend shutdown of World Trade Center service, PATH may miss its own safety program deadlines, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal by Ted Mann (March 21). The 45-weekend shutdown is needed, PATH said, to allow it to meet deadlines to install “positive train control” (PTC) technology by December, 2015. The advanced safety system was mandated by Congress for commuter railroads after a fatal train wreck in California in 2008, attributed to engineer inattention. Proponents say that wreck, and other accidents such as a recent fatal derailment on Metro-North in the Bronx, could have been prevented by PTC.

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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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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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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.

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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.

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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.