Feds order MTA to create employee reporting system, improve safety

A Metro-North train headed to Grand Central Terminal A Metro-North train headed to Grand Central Terminal derailed in the Bronx, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. (Dec. 1, 2013) Photo Credit: Lou Minutoli

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Alarmed over a string of accidents on the Metro-North Railroad, including the one on Sunday that killed four people, federal officials have ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to immediately establish a system allowing employees to report potentially dangerous conditions without retribution.

In a sternly worded letter, Joseph C. Szabo, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that regulates the commuter rail, told MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast that federal officials have "serious concerns" over the four Metro-North accidents since May, in which a total of five people were killed and 129 injured.

"The specific causes of each of these recent accidents may vary, but regardless of the reasons, 4 serious accidents in less than 7 months is simply unacceptable," Szabo said in the Dec. 3 letter.

The letter was written two days after the Metro-North Hudson commuter-line train, traveling at 82 mph in a 30-mph zone careened off the tracks just north of the Spuyten Duyvil station and skidded to the edge of the Harlem River about 7:20 a.m. Sunday.

The engineer, William Rockefeller, "nodded" off moments before the derailing, Anthony Bottalico, of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, said Tuesday. Rockefeller has been suspended without pay.

Full service on the Metro-North Hudson line resumed Wednesday, the MTA said.

Adam Lisberg, an MTA spokesman, said the authority will put in place the confidential close-call reporting system, commonly referred to as C3RS, throughout Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.

That system, federal officials said, is in place on other rail lines across the country and has "proven effective" in identifying safety issues and reducing injuries and accidents.

The MTA, which is evaluating several safety improvements, is still deciding on what form the system will take.

On May 17, two Metro-North trains on the New Haven line collided during evening rush hour after one derailed near Fairfield, Conn. At least 70 people were injured. Less than two weeks later, on May 28, a track foreman was struck and killed in West Haven, Conn. On July 18, a CSX freight train derailed near where the Metro-North train left the tracks on Sunday.

"Not only have some of these incidents had tragic and catastrophic consequences, they have also eroded the public's confidence in the safety of the railroad transportation system," said Szabo, who demanded the MTA reply by Friday.

While investigators continue to probe the cause of the deadly crash, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Thursday said he supports a high-tech system that would automatically stop runaway trains, referred to as positive train-control system.

"Those look like the way of the future. That's what we are working toward," Cuomo said on a public-radio show.

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