Federal review finds that New York's Metro-North railroad has poor safety culture

The Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, left, and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, comment during a news conference on a report by the Federal Railroad Administration about the Metro-North Railroad, at the information booth in New York's Grand Central Terminal, Friday, March 14, 2014. Metro-North commuter railroad has allowed an overemphasis on train times to "routinely" overshadow its safety operations, according to an FRA review that was released Friday. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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By JIM FITZGERALD, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Metro-North, the nation's second-largest commuter railroad, allowed safety to erode while pushing to keep its trains on time, resulting in a lax culture of inadequate inspections, poor training and inappropriate cellphone use, according to a stinging federal report prompted by a deadly derailment.

The Federal Railroad Administration, in a report to Congress issued Friday, said Metro-North's emphasis on sticking to its schedule "led to a deficient safety culture that has manifested itself in increased risk and reduced safety."

It said that "no single department or office, including the Safety Department, proactively advocates for safety" at the railroad, which carried more than 843 million riders between New York City and its suburbs in 2013.

FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo said on a conference call that Metro-North "failed to set aside sufficient time" for track inspection and maintenance and resisted testing its crews on its main lines, "the most important place to do it," for fear of delaying passenger trains.

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

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 2013: a derailment in Bridgeport, Conn., that injured more than 50 people; an accident in West Haven, Conn., that killed a Metro-North worker; and a freight train derailment in June in New York City.

It did 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 at a Grand Central Terminal news conference that the report was "deeply troubling and it raises real concerns."

"Safety was not the top priority," he said. "It must be and it will be. ... Every problem I have seen here can be fixed and will be fixed." He said "aggressive actions" were already underway, including a program that would allow workers to make confidential calls raising safety issues.

Metro-North also has modified signals and posted 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.

On the conference call, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called for more personnel changes. Giulietti said he expects to announce shortly a new chief of transportation and a new person in charge of engineering.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, "We've changed leadership at Metro-North. We're doing everything we can as quickly as we can to make it safer. ... I understand the importance of on-time service, people want that too, but more important is safety."

Metro-North riders said the derailment had made them more concerned about safety.

"People are definitely more afraid," said Brenda Gonzalez, an office manager from Mount Vernon. She said measures should be taken "if there's a real danger to commuters."

David Bishop, of Scarsdale, said the findings in Friday's report would have surprised him "until the accident they had last year."

Politicians including Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., called for more funding for Metro-North and other railroads to install positive train control, a technology that Szabo said probably would have prevented the Bronx derailment.

The report found that Metro-North training needs improvement in at least seven areas, ranging from track safety to engineer certification to dispatch.