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Federal Review: Metro-North ‘Routinely’ Put On-Time Performance Ahead Of Safety

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A blistering new Federal Railroad Administration report claimed that the Metro-North Railroad has allowed its emphasis on trains’ on-time performance to “routinely” overshadow its safety operations.

“Metro-North has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure,” said the report released Friday. “Metro-North must never compromise safety in the interests of the reliability of its train schedule or the efficiency in its railroad operations.”

EXTRA: Read The Full Report (PDF)

The inquiry was prompted by a Dec. 1 derailment in the Bronx that killed four passengers and injured about 70 others when the engineer approached a the dangerous Spuyten-Duyvil curve going 82 miles per hour. But it delves into a wide range of operations at the railroad, which serves north suburban areas up along the Hudson Valley, as well as Connecticut.

The report, called “Operation Deep Dive,” said employees reported pressure from the railroad’s operations control center to rush when responding to signal failures; workers had trouble getting needed track time to make essential repairs; and cellphone use by track workers “appeared to be quite commonplace.”

As CBS 2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported Friday, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was furious about the report.

“There are many specific findings that made my skin crawl,” Schumer said.

The agency charged that Metro-North pressures workers “to rush when responding to signal failures,” that workers had difficulty securing track time to perform necessary repairs, and that “commonplace” cellphone use by track workers while on the job created dangers.

“I think this report has pinpointed the problem,” Sen. Charles Schumer said. “They care about things that are not as important as safety and make them a higher priority. A good railroad puts safety at the top of the list.”

Schumer reacted to the report along with U.S. Sen Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority needs to target the people responsible for the derailments and deaths.

“Safety culture means accountability when you screw up. And until the people who screw up are held accountable, safety culture won’t happen,” he said.

In addition to the Bronx crash, the report cited a May 17, 2013 derailment in Bridgeport, Conn. that injured more than 50 people, some seriously, and cost “millions” in property damage; a May 28, 2013, accident in West Haven, Conn., that killed a Metro-North worker; and a July 18, 2013 freight train derailment in the Bronx that resulted in “significant” property damage.

The FRA added that it “is encouraged by the many good employees” who met with investigators. “Their dedication and desire to turn Metro-North into a safe, professional railroad serving the citizens of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will provide Metro-North’s new leadership with a solid foundation upon which to make immediate improvements and effect long-term cultural exchange.”

After the Spuyten-Duyvil accident, the commuter line brought in a new president. Joseph J. Giulietti said the railroad is taking “aggressive actions to affirm that safety is the most important factor in railroad operations.”

Giulietti called the federal report’s findings deeply troubling and vowed aggressive actions to change a culture that puts schedules ahead of safety.

“Safety was not the top priority. It must be, and it will be,” Giulietti said. “There is a problem with the culture. As I’ve learned in the last month, it’s not just a problem with one or two departments. Culture develops over years, and it will take time to change culture as well.”

Since the derailment, the agency has made changes, including modifying its signal system to enforce speed limits, and changing the management structure.

Last month, the MTA announced it will split a single safety and security position at Metro-North into two separate executive-level positions. In addition, there will be an MTA board-level safety committee.

But Giulietti conceded that making the safety fixes will take time, and that commuters could face longer rides.

“This will be a strategic analysis,” Giulietti said. “It will be followed by a schedule change, and we’re shooting for that schedule change in May.”

The new Metro-North president promised better employee training and monitoring, cameras in trains and better maintenance.

Last week, Giulietti gave Connecticut’s transportation commissioner a preliminary 100-day improvement plan, stressing the railroad’s first priority is to rebuild a culture of safety.

Giulietti said Metro-North will re-establish a safety department to enforce safety policies, a data analysis unit to identify positive and negative trends and review and improve programs to train and test employees on their knowledge of safe operations. He said Metro-North is also working on communicating better and restoring on-time performance.

As WCBS 880 Connecticut Bureau Chief Fran Schneidau reported, commuter rail advocate Jim Cameron stresses that the trains are no better than the tracks they ride on. He said job number one is track maintenance.

“Overall, I think the big takeaway from this Deep Dive report is the railroad put much more importance on bragging rights for being on time than on being safe. You can’t have it both ways,” Cameron told Schneidau.

Meanwhile, Schumer said he is so concerned with the report findings that he is asking the MTA to apply it with, in his words, “a magnifying glass” to see if the same problems exist on the Long Island Rail Road as well.

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