Metro-North engineers blew past red lights 24 times in the past 3 1/2 years -- or an average of nearly 7 a year -- compared with just four such instances in 2005, Newsday has learned.
The spike has railroad officials concerned and taking a hard look at what's behind the uptick.
Among their findings is that most of last year's 10 signal violations occurred with engineers at the helm who had less than five years of experience driving the high-speed trains.
"They're younger people. It could be they're a generation of multitaskers, and operating a train requires a singular focus," said Marjorie Anders, a Metro-North spokeswoman.
Violating a stop light is the railroad equivalent of a car cruising through a red light at an intersection. Only the result could be far more disastrous, considering commuter trains weigh thousands of tons and carry hundreds of passengers at a time.
Nearly two-thirds of the Metro-North violations last year occurred in Grand Central Terminal, where dozens of trains every hour navigate a maze of tracks and platforms guided by nearly 200 signals, Anders said. In Grand Central, however, trains only travel at 10 mph or less.
Metro-North officials note that the violations occurred on less than 1 percent of the 270,000 trains it operates every year. But they did not downplay the significance of the incidents or the dangers they bring.
"It is very serious," Anders said. "We don't want to have any incidents."
The trend in red light violations has held so far this year, with Metro-North engineers, who are responsible for driving the trains, racking up five signal violations since January, railroad officials said. In 2010, Metro-North had eight stop signal violations, followed by one in 2011, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.
The miscues have led the railroad to decertify or temporarily suspend the driving privileges of nearly two dozen engineers since the beginning of 2010, according to the railroad administration. None of these violations since 2010 has resulted in injuries or crashes.
To help decrease the incidents, Metro-North -- at the suggestion of the railroad administration -- has reached out to advisers from the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, a division of the federal Department of Transporation. Volpe will be meeting with Metro-North officials next month to discuss safety issues to see if the advisers are able to help the railroad.
"Another set of eyes would be great," Anders said. "When a regulatory agency offers assistance we accept."
Officials with the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, which represents Metro-North engineers and conductors, could not immediately be reached for comment.
WORKFORCE BRINGING LESS EXPERIENCE
Metro-North outpaced some of the nation's busiest commuter rails in stop signal violations last year, according to railroad administration statistics.
Long Island Rail Road engineers had seven stop signal violations. Metra, the commuter rail division of the Illinois Regional Transportation Authority serving Chicago, had five violations. And the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. in Boston had one incident of running a red light, according to the data.
When red light infractions occur, the train is stopped, the engineer is pulled off the train and a replacement engineer is called in to take passengers to their destination.
After a hearing, management decides whether the engineer or a faulty signal is to blame.
The Newsday findings come as federal officials are investigating two Metro-North accidents on its Connecticut railways that occurred within 11 days of one another last month.
On May 17, a New Haven-bound train derailed near Bridgeport and sideswiped an oncoming train, injuring more than 70 people. And on May 28, track foreman Robert Luden, 52, was killed when a commuter train was sent down tracks that were supposed to be off limits during construction of a new West Haven, Conn., station.
Worker inexperience may also have been a factor in the accident that killed Luden.
On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board said a railway traffic controller in training was temporarily working alone when he decided to remove a computerized blocking device that allowed the New Haven Line train to head down the out-of-service tracks. A more senior controller who was supposed to be overseeing the student's work had temporarily stepped away from the console at the Grand Central command center when the accident occurred, the NTSB said.
Meanwhile, Metro-North is coping with the expected loss of 600 workers this year as veterans of its 6,000-member workforce become eligible for retirement 30 years after the railroad was started. Railroad officials are working hard to fill some of those spots.
And, Metro-North is in the midst of a hiring spree to find engineers and conductors to work on some of the 187 trains it's added in recent months as part of the biggest service expansion in Metro-North history.
EXTENSIVE TRAINING FOR NEW ENGINEERS
To combat the inexperience, new engineers undergo 12 months of training before they are allowed to drive a train alone, according to Anders. They then work for months in a rail car that simulates what they'll see on the rails.
About 5 percent don't make the cut and are not offered jobs that pay $37.80 an hour to start, Metro-North officials said. Veteran engineers can make $100,000 or more depending on how much overtime they make.
As part of their training, the engineers are handed a brochure that urges them to "Keep the Focus in the Red Zone."
"Don't take a mental vacation," the brochure adds.
New engineers are also closely watched while at work. Over the course of a year, they are subject to three announced or unannounced visits from managers to see how they're handling their trains, Anders said. In addition, inspectors will stand by the side of the rails using radar to monitor speed of trains driven by the new engineers.
Anders said Metro-North began noticing the uptick of red light violations around 2008 and has tried to find common threads in the personalities of the engineers who've made the errors and used that to influence their hiring practices.
"We're on top of it," Anders said. "We analyze every single incident in excruciating detail. This is not something people should be alarmed by."