Deadly Metro-North crash is MTA's fifth derailment this year

Rescuers stand by with emergency equipment during a Rescuers stand by with emergency equipment during a search Sunday for victims of a derailment in the Bronx of a Metro-North train out of Poughkeepsie. (Dec. 1, 2013) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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Sunday's Metro-North train derailment -- the third on the railroad's tracks this year and the fifth involving a Metropolitan Transportation Authority train -- is raising concerns about MTA rail safety, including on the Long Island Rail Road.

The deadly derailment occurred in the same area of the Bronx where a CSX freight train went off the tracks in July. And in May, a Metro-North train derailed near Bridgeport, Conn., injuring 76 people.

The other MTA derailments this year were two by LIRR trains and a No. 1 subway train in Manhattan -- none of which involved injuries. The number of incidents had already sparked the MTA to put together a "blue-ribbon panel" of rail safety experts in September to study the issue.

The LIRR and Metro-North each had two derailments last year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, but there were no injuries in any of those.

"I can't see how you can't help but be concerned," said William Henderson, executive director of the MTA Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR and Metro-North commuter councils. "But at the same time, the system is a very safe system. The reason this is so stunning is that it just doesn't happen."

MTA board member Charles Moerdler -- a frequent critic of MTA management practices -- said the authority remains "basically, extremely safe" considering the number of trains operated on Metro-North and the LIRR -- the two busiest railroads in North America.

"This is probably a confluence of unexpected coincidences that pulled together," Moerdler said. "There are far more accidents on the road. There are far more accidents in the air. There are far more accidents walking than there are on the rails."

The NTSB last month held two days of hearings examining safety issues at Metro-North stemming from the May derailment and the deadly striking of a track worker in West Haven, Conn., 11 days later.

Metro-North president Howard Permut told the board members that safety has always been the agency's top priority, but that it was also increasing efforts to prevent accidents, including by undertaking "a comprehensive examination of our infrastructure and our maintenance and safety practices."

Yesterday's derailment was the worst on an MTA train since a No. 4 train derailed at Union Square in 1991, killing five people and injuring more than 200.

The last LIRR accident that claimed the lives of passengers was 63 years ago, when one train crashed into another near Kew Gardens, killing 78 people.

Long Island elected officials weighed in Sunday on the derailment. State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick), chairman of the Senate's Transportation Committee, said he wanted to see the entire regional rail network "examined to identify any chronic issues that have led to past derailments or could lead to future derailments."

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) called for a "swift and robust" probe into the derailment "so we can ensure that not only Metro-North, but also similar commuter rail systems like the LIRR are the safest they can be."

MTA board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook said Sunday's derailment highlights the need for continued and increased investment in older infrastructure, such as the complex and aging network of tracks near Jamaica.

"It's a very, very safe system. But can it be made even safer? I don't think anybody would disagree that the answer to that question is obviously yes," Pally said.

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