Wednesday, October 29, 2014

NTSB, others savage Metro-North, FRA on safety

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The National Transporation Safety Board (NTSB) on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014, publicly identified several recurring safety issues plaguing Metro-North Railroad in past years, including inadequate and ineffective track inspection and maintenance, extensive deferred maintenance issues, inadequate safety oversight, and deficiencies in passenger car crashworthiness, roadway worker protection procedures, and organizational safety culture.

Within an 11-month period from May 2013 through March 2014, NTSB launched investigations into five significant accidents involving Metro-North. The accidents resulted in six fatalities and 126 injuries. During the investigations, NTSB said, it found several safety management problems that were common to all of the accidents.

The public spanking took place at a press conference in Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, where NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart was joined by several high-ranking politicians from New York and Connecticut, which Metro-North serves.

"Seeing this pattern of safety issues in a single railroad is troubling," said Hart. "The NTSB has made numerous recommendations to the railroad and the regulator that could have prevented or mitigated these accidents. But recommendations can only make a difference if the recipients of our recommendations act on them."

NTSB will issue recommendations designed to improve railroad safety on Metro-North and other railroads. Early this year, the NTSB made safety recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and to Metro-North that address some ongoing issues.

The New York Times on Wednesday, Oct. 29, noted that NTSB slammed FRA inaction as well. Reporting on the sleep apnea diagnosis of Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller that played a role in the Spuyten Duyvil crash, The Times noted NTSB "had been calling for 12 years for the screening of train operators for sleep disorders, Mr. Hart said, but had been ignored by Metro-North's primary regulator, the Federal Railroad Administration."

Piling on, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.),  Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sharply criticized FRA as well. Schumer, "in his typical grandiose camera-hugging style," noted one observer, said that NTSB's reports on the five episodes revealed a “horror house of negligence, resulting in injury, mayhem and even death.” Blumenthal, who earlier this year came within inches of being whacked by an Amtrak train on a Metro-North platform where he had arranged — without Metro-North's permission — a press conference on safety, called the FRA “essentially a lawless agency, a rogue agency” that was “too captive” to the industry and “much too deferential” to the owners of railroads.

Two sources told Railway Age that Metro-North and parent Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) were not represented at the Grand Central Terminal press conference, with one source insisting Metro-North and the MTA had been specifically told not to attend. Metro-North President Joe Giulietti, one source said, was briefed by NTSB two hours prior to the press conference.

MTA recently hired David Mayer as its new chief safety officer. The new position was created to reinforce safety as the top priority for all MTA agencies as they continue to improve work practices and invest in new technology and equipment. Mayer, currently the NTSB's Managing Director, starts his new position on Dec. 1.

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