Metro-North cares more about punctuality than safety, federal review finds


A Metro-North passenger train after the derailment on Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

The Metro-North Railroad has a “deficient safety culture” and emphasizes its on-time performance over safe operations and a properly-maintained infrastructure, according to a scathing report released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration.

“This is a severe assessment, and it is intended as an urgent call to action to Metro-North’s leadership as they work to develop a comprehensive plan to turn Metro-North into a model of safe railroad operations,” the report said.

The FRA’s inquiry, dubbed “Operation Deep Dive,” was launched in the wake of a fatal derailment in December. A seven-car Metro-North train derailed in the Bronx, killing four passengers and injuring more than 70 others. That was the fourth big accident that occurred on Metro-North’s system last year: A derailment and accident in May sent more than 60 people to the hospital; a worker was struck and killed by a Metro-North train less than two weeks later; and a CSX freight train derailed on Metro-North’s tracks in July.

Problems have continued this year. A worker was killed by a Metro-North train on Monday. In January, trains were halted for hours due to what was described as a human error during a repair project. There have also been service issues caused by outside events, like the Harlem building explosion on Wednesday; debris was thrown onto nearby Metro-North tracks, cutting off service for several hours.

During the 60-day safety assessment by the FRA, dozens of experts reviewed how Metro-North treats safety regulations and its overall safety culture. They found what the report called an “overemphasis” on punctuality, an ineffective safety department, poor safety culture and a weak training program.

“Safety is our top priority, and this in-depth assessment should serve as a wake-up call to Metro-North as they work to make their operations safer,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “Efficiency and on-time performance are important, but they cannot come before the safety of every passenger on board or those communities along the system.”

In the report, the FRA identified eight areas of critical concern and offered directives, including seeing if there’s enough time in the train schedules for inspection and maintenance; improving the training for engineers, conductors, dispatchers and others; and reviewing and addressing fatigue among workers.

The all-consuming focus on punctuality came through in interviews with Metro-North employees, according to the report. Employees told FRA investigators they felt pressure to rush when dealing with signal failures, while others said they felt it was difficult to get enough time to make track repairs.

Metro-North has been given 60 days to give the FRA a plan to strengthen the railroad’s safety department and a strategy to bolster the training program.

The commuter railroad, a subsidiary of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority,  is used by nearly 83 million riders a year. Joseph J. Giuletti, Metro-North’s new president, said in a statement that it would take “aggressive actions to affirm that safety is the most important factor in railroad operations.”

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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Mark Berman | March 14