A state audit found several problems with the LIRR’s maintenance of black box train event recorders, including several malfunctions of the devices and lax inspection procedures.
The audit from the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli looked at LIRR maintenance records for its train event recorders — often referred to as “black boxes” — from January 2014 to February 2017, and found the agency’s practices were “not always in compliance” with standards.
The Federal Railroad Administration requires trains to be equipped with event recorders, which monitor key functions, including speed, acceleration and brakes. Investigators rely on the data to help determine the cause of train accidents and how they can be prevented.
"Black boxes on commuter trains provide information that impacts train safety, and there is no excuse for failing to properly maintain these devices," DiNapoli said in a statement Wednesday. "In an effort to improve the data available for post-accident investigations and possibly prevent future accidents, LIRR officials should re-examine their inspection procedures to ensure this equipment is functioning properly."
As the state's chief fiscal officer, the state comptroller routinely conducts audits of state agencies "to ensure that they use taxpayer money effectively and efficiently to promote the common good," according to DiNapoli's website.
The LIRR said it agreed with some of the audit's findings and is working to improve its black box maintenance procedures, but also disputed other aspects.
“The LIRR has a strong record with regard to event recorder maintenance and inspections,” LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said Wednesday.
The audit found that during five separate months during the three-year evaluation period, more than 10 percent of the LIRR’s train event recorders were not functioning — an amount exceeding the FRA standards for “effective maintenance,” according to the report.
The report also found that of 243 inspection dates reviewed by auditors, there were 55 incidents of “train cars sitting idle for more than two days” before the event recorders were inspected, with some waiting more than a week for inspections.
When defects are found during inspections, the LIRR “does not have a corrective action plan/program to ensure defects are addressed and corrected on a timely basis,” according to the audit.
Auditors said putting off the inspections resulted in the devices automatically recording over valuable data from when the train was in service — "time-limiting the availability of data to assess if the [event recorder] is functioning properly.”
In its formal response to the audit, the LIRR agreed with some recommendations made by DiNapoli, including that it should work to improve recorder inspection, testing and maintenance policies and procedures. The railroad said it is already taking steps, including establishing better guidelines on how data downloaded from the boxes should be analyzed.
But the LIRR also disputed some of the findings, including that 10 percent or more of its event recorders weren’t working properly during the evaluation. LIRR president Phillip Eng said auditors “apparently did not understand” the difference between recorders failing and recorders being taken out of service for preventative maintenance. Auditors said the railroad provided no evidence that the work conducted on some of the recorders was preventive.
Eng also disputed that there was any harm in having the event recorders sitting idle for a few days waiting for inspection, because the devices can store up to two weeks of data and, typically, do not continue recording once trains are pulled out of service.