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Metro-North accidents blamed on lax U.S. oversight, safety failures

Cars of a Metro-North train that left the

Cars of a Metro-North train that left the tracks in the Bronx lie in a marsh along the Hudson River on Dec. 1, 2013. Credit: AP

Lax federal oversight and the repeated failure to follow several safety recommendations contributed to five serious Metro-North Railroad accidents that killed six people in less than one year, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report released Tuesday.

The railroad's sloppy practices, which included putting off scheduled track maintenance for years, and the Federal Railroad Administration's disregard of several NTSB recommendations made for a "horror house of negligence" at Metro-North, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a Grand Central Terminal news conference announcing the findings of the NTSB probe.

"The tragedies demonstrated a total lack of emphasis on safety," said Schumer, joined by Democratic Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. "It seems clear from the NTSB report that, had Metro-North been doing what it was supposed to be doing, then every one of these accidents could have been avoided."

The five events probed by the NTSB were the May 17, 2013, derailment in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that injured 65 passengers; the May 28, 2013, death of a track worker struck in West Haven, Connecticut; the July 18, 2013, derailment of a freight train on Metro-North tracks in the Bronx; the Dec. 1, 2013, Bronx derailment that killed four passengers and injured 61; and the March 10 death of a railroad electrician struck on tracks in Manhattan.

"Five accidents at one railroad in less than a year beg the question: How important is safety at Metro-North?" said NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart, who added the accidents were predictable and avoidable.

The NTSB found that Metro-North's decision to defer scheduled track maintenance by up to seven years contributed to the Bridgeport and Bronx derailments. In the West Haven accident an unsupervised rail traffic controller removed signal protection equipment, leading to the track worker's being killed. "Incomplete and inaccurate" roadway worker briefings led to the death of the electrician in Manhattan, according to the probe.

And in the December derailment, -- the deadliest New York City train accident in more than two decades -- undiagnosed severe sleep apnea contributed to the engineer's falling asleep as his train moved through a sharp curve at 82 mph, more than 50 mph above the speed limit.

In response to the report, Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti said that since the December derailment the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has embraced the recommendations of the NTSB and of several other agencies and safety experts. And the MTA has instituted several safety upgrades, including increased track maintenance, "alerter" systems in locomotive cabs to ensure engineers are awake, and a pilot project to screen engineers for sleep disorders. The MTA also has expedited a federally mandated plan to install "positive train control" crash-prevention technology on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.

The MTA on Monday also announced the hiring of its first chief safety officer, David Mayer, who will oversee all MTA safety initiatives.

Hart and the senators also chided the Federal Railroad Administration for failing to act on several NTSB recommendations that, if implemented, could have prevented some of the accidents. They include a recommendation, first made a dozen years ago, to require railroads to screen engineers for sleep disorders, and another to stop giving commuter railroads, such as Metro-North, exemptions from rules requiring railroad workers to inspect tracks on foot, rather than from a train car.

In a statement, an FRA spokesman said the agency does "routinely address" NTSB recommendations.

Prioritization of congressionally mandated items, the adminstration said, has led to a nearly 50 percent reduction in train accidents in the past 10 years.

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