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LIRR reports rise in number of accidents

A westbound Long Island Rail Road train enters

A westbound Long Island Rail Road train enters the Freeport station in the early morning hours of March 11, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

The number of safety-related accidents and incidents reported by the Long Island Rail Road has more than doubled since 2004, federal statistics show.

The incidents, which are higher than those of its highly scrutinized sister railroad Metro-North, are largely the result of heightened internal reporting practices following a Newsday investigation seven years ago into the rate of customers falling into the gaps between train doors and station platforms, LIRR officials said.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, the total number of safety-related accidents or incidents at the LIRR, the busiest commuter railroad in the United States, has steadily climbed from 323 in 2004 to 658 in 2013 -- the worst single year in that period. During the same period, Metro-North saw its accidents and incidents drop 41 percent, from 408 in 2004 to 241 last year.

The LIRR's nearly 104 percent increase is also well above the 27 percent increase in accidents and incidents among all commuter railroads in the country.

Adjusted for accidents and incidents per million customers, the LIRR's rate increased by 94 percent in the 10 years while Metro-North's rate dropped by 49 percent. Nationally, the 23 commuter railroads in the same category as the LIRR saw their accident/incident rate increase by 5.4 percent in that time.

The FRA defines accidents and incidents as "collisions, derailments, and other events involving the operation of on-track equipment and causing reportable damage above an established threshold; impacts between railroad on-track equipment and highway users at crossings; and all other incidents or exposures that cause a fatality or injury to any person, or an occupational illness to a railroad employee."

LIRR president Helena Williams said the statistics are largely driven by a "dramatic shift" in the agency's approach toward reporting incidents after reports surfaced that the railroad had long been underreporting gap-fall incidents. After increasing by about 20 percent from 2004 through 2006, incidents/accidents spiked by 43 percent in 2007 -- the year Newsday and the FRA investigated the gap incidents and Williams took office.

"You're not going to know you have issues unless you start reporting on them . . . I said, 'We are going to collect anything and everything and send it in,' " said Williams, who recalled being mindful of how the new approach would impact the LIRR's federal safety record. "You can't build a safety culture on how your numbers might look."

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Kevin Thompson confirmed that, following a 2007 audit that found the LIRR was not properly reporting some accidents, including gap falls, federal officials ordered the railroad "to broaden the types of incidents and accidents it regularly reports to include slips, falls, medical emergencies and other incidents that regularly occur on the railroad."

The change resulted in a "significant increase" in the total number of incidents/accidents reported, Thompson said.

Since 2007, the number of total LIRR incidents/accidents has increased by about 18 percent. LIRR officials said changes in FRA reporting standards, some severe winters and the aftermath of superstorm Sandy have contributed to increases in recent years.

Williams said the advent of mobile technology, including smartphones, has contributed to customer slip-and-falls -- the most commonly reported incident.

Of the 658 incidents/accidents last year, 638 were categorized as "other accidents and incidents," which Thompson said would include slips, trip falls and heart attacks.

More serious occurrences are far more rare. Train accidents, including derailments, fell from 13 in 1994 to 7 last year -- a drop of 46 percent.

There have not been any passengers killed in train accidents in more than 10 years. Three employees have died on duty since 2004. None died on duty last year. And the number of passenger injuries from train accidents fell from 24 in 2004 to none last year.

Earlier this month the American Public Transportation Safety Association in a draft of its findings from a recent safety audit called the LIRR's safety program "excellent" and its implementation by management "commendable."

"The effort the LIRR has put forth to make its system safe and secure is commendable," the association wrote.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for a thorough federal investigation of safety practices at the LIRR, following a similar "Deep Dive" probe into Metro-North that found agency managers routinely putting train on-time performance before customer and employee safety.

The Metro-North investigation was spurred by a spate of train accidents during the past year, including a Bronx train derailment on Dec. 1 that killed three passengers.

FRA officials said they had no reason to believe similar problems exist at the LIRR, but have said they intend to meet with representatives from the LIRR and all commuter railroads in the coming months to discuss safety.

After reviewing LIRR federal safety data provided by Newsday, Schumer said it provided "all the more reason for the FRA to move forward with an investigation into the LIRR's safety measures and make sure that a lack of 'culture of safety' does not exist."

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said the LIRR's safety stats and the "specific safety challenges" posed by its uniquely complex system should both be addressed by the FRA.

"The safety problems facing both commuter rails are not new, but we, the users of the systems, are all learning to ask better questions and expect better answers," Epstein said. "Safety must be its first priority and concern."

Following the fatal December derailment, both Metro-North and the LIRR adopted several new safety initiatives, including installing new speed control technology on curved tracks, restructuring safety staff, and making plans to put video cameras inside most locomotive engineer cabs and also alert systems to ensure engineers are awake and in control.

Williams said the LIRR also continues to make efforts to reduce injuries caused by distracted or rushed customers, including with educational videos at Penn Station.

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