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Officials: MTA to audit LIRR safety rules after worker killed

Emergency personnel respond to the Queens Village Long

Emergency personnel respond to the Queens Village Long Island Rail Road station after a person was struck by a train on June 10, 2017. The person died after being hit, an FDNY spokesman said. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The MTA will audit safety procedures at the Long Island Rail Road after an NTSB report criticized the railroad for lax enforcement of rules that could have saved the life of a worker struck by a train last June, railroad officials said.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the June 10 death of track foreman Michael Ollek, of Bellmore, found that LIRR employees working on the tracks were not complying with federal regulations and the LIRR’s own rules on protection from approaching trains.

And, according to the report released last month, the LIRR’s routine audits of its safety practices were failing to catch dangerous rule violations.

“The NTSB is concerned that the LIRR management is overlooking and, therefore, normalizing noncompliance with the LIRR rules and federal regulations,” the report said.

Ollek, 55, was among a group of five workers walking along the tracks near Queens Village when a designated “watchman” at the rear warned of an approaching train on an adjacent track, according to the NTSB report. LIRR rules dictate that workers must retreat to a “predetermined place of safety,” when a train is approaching, but security video showed “the roadway workers made no attempt to clear the tracks,” and Ollek stepped into the path of the oncoming train.

In interviews with NTSB investigators in September, other LIRR track foremen gave conflicting views about proper track-clearing procedures, and also said they could not recall any discussion of those procedures after Ollek’s death, the report said.

Because the LIRR’s own safety audits were not addressing the issue, the NTSB issued an “urgent recommendation” that the railroad’s parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, conduct its own audit of LIRR train approach warning procedures, and act to address any “deficiencies” it finds.

At an MTA board meeting last month, LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski confirmed that the MTA headquarters would conduct a safety audit of the railroad, and acknowledged the shortcomings of the LIRR’s own safety efforts.

“We have our own compliance program and it was not identifying that people were not following the rules. And, obviously, they did not in this case,” Nowakowski said. “Even though the rule’s there, they were not doing what they were supposed to do. We need to correct that.”

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, which represents LIRR track workers, declined to comment on the NTSB report Tuesday, other than to say the union is “working with the MTA and LIRR to make sure another tragic accident like this never happens again by making sure we run the safest operation as possible.”

Also Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice called on the Federal Railroad Administration to investigate workplace safety practices at the LIRR’s rail freight contractor, after allegations in a lawsuit that New York & Atlantic Railway was having untrained and uncertified day laborers perform dangerous jobs on LIRR tracks.

The federal agency previously reviewed safety practices at NYAR, which has operated on LIRR tracks since 1997, and issued a report in 2016 that found “several safety issues.”

“These allegations are concerning and it is critical that FRA again review NYAR’s workplace conditions to ensure lessons were learned after the 2016 report,” Rice (D-Garden City) wrote to FRA Administrator Ronald Batory. “Employees must be confident that they will only be asked to do work for which they are trained so they do not put their health and safety at risk. Commuters must be confident that the tracks their trains use every day are safe.”

NYAR has called the charges in the suit “baseless and without merit.”

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