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Federal Lawmakers Weigh In On Safety Report For Metro-North

Barry Solow, flickr

A federal report that found major safety lapses at Metro-North Railroad has two U.S. senators looking to the railroad’s new president for change. Meanwhile, a few congressional representatives say it’s time to spend money on improving the nation’s rail system and other infrastructure.

The Federal Railroad Administration report, called Operation Deep Dive, highlights three overarching findings – an overemphasis on on-time performance to the detriment of safety; an ineffective safety department and poor safety culture; and ineffective and inadequate training. The report was spurred by four major accidents in 2013 – two in May in Connecticut, a CSX freight train derailment in New York in July, and the fatal derailment in the Bronx in December. Hudson Valley Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who is the ranking Democratic on the House Appropriations Committee, required the report in a January spending bill. She says the federal government should help commuter railroads across the U.S. improve safety.

“Congress must fully fund the president’s request of $825 million to assist the commuter railroads to implement positive train control,” Lowey says.

She points out that, by law, railroads are expected to implement positive train control, or PTC, systems, by December 2015. The U.S. Department of Transportation secretary testified last week before Lowey and the House Appropriations Committee that many will not meet this deadline.  A National Transportation Safety Board spokesman has said PTC would have prevented the Bronx derailment of a commuter train from Poughkeepsie that killed four passengers and injured more than 60. PTC is Wi-Fi and GPS-based safety technology that monitors and, if necessary, controls train movement in the event of human error.

Democratic Congresswoman from Connecticut Elizabeth Esty echoes the importance of infrastructure investment.

“We should not be waiting until trains derail, bridges collapse, and people die,” says Esty. “We need to provide the resources. The president, as Congresswoman Lowey has already noted, has announced a bold goal on infrastructure including on transport and on rail. We need to be supporting that.”

New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, says the number of lapses cited in the report speaks to a problem with senior management at Metro-North.

“And the fact that we have a new head of Metro-North is opportune. He can change the Metro-North culture. He can turn it inside out to make sure that safety is number one, and I would say that is his job number one,” said Schumer.

Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti, who was appointed in January, says it is. During a press conference Friday in response to the FRA report, Giulietti said cultural change will take time. Democratic Senator from Connecticut Richard Blumenthal was critical about certain aspects of the FRA report.

“The area that seems to me lacking in this report relates to changes in management,” Blumenthal says. “So far, Metro-North has not indicated whether anyone has been shown the door, whether there have been any specific changes in management reflecting accountability. And I’m calling for those changes in management because people who are incompetent need to be shown the door. Incompetence has to have consequences.”

Giulietti says a new vice president of engineering along with a chief transportation officer are coming on board, but he refused to look back when asked during the press conference whether any managers would be let go.

“Allow me the discretion to not turn around and say that someone is going, someone is moving right now. Instead, as it progresses, I will give you the names of the people that are coming in and you can form your own opinions on that.”

Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney used the FRA report to tout his Commuter Rail Passenger Safety Act, which would allow commuter rail systems to apply for loans and loan guarantees to invest in PTC systems through an FRA financing program. He offered this comment concerning the FRA report.

“And I am concerned that in this blizzard of recommendations we will get distracted from doing major new things that will save lives in the future, both in commuter rail lines and in freight lines that we also have in the Hudson Valley that move very dangerous materials like the Bakken shale oil crude and other materials” says Maloney. “And we need to have a whole new culture of safety on the rail lines. And if this doesn’t wake us all up, I don’t know what will.”

FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo says Metro-North has already begun safety improvements and taken some corrective actions.

“So it’s clearly a safer railroad today than it was three months ago, but it’s time to raise the bar to ensure that they get back to achieving the gold standard that they once so proudly held.”

Maloney, a Democrat, chimes in:

“I would just add that safe enough is not good enough.”

Szabo says Metro-North will submit plans to improve the safety department and training program to the FRA by May 17. Blumenthal says he wants to see deadlines for implementation.

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