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MTA internal review faults LIRR's derailment response: 'No clear direction'

Newsday reporter Alfonso Castillo on Wednesday spoke about the internal watchdog review, which found that the railroad offers "no clear direction” as to who is in charge during derailments and allows employees to leave before being drug tested. (Credit: Newsday / Alfonso A. Castillo)

The Long Island Rail Road's train derailment response plan offers "no clear direction" as to who is in charge after a serious accident, and has allowed employees to leave the scene before being tested for drugs and alcohol, according to a new report from the MTA's internal watchdog.

The review of investigative practices was issued Wednesday by Metropolitan Transportation Authority Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny, as she examined the LIRR’s “Corporate Policy & Procedure for Incident Investigations” to determine whether it was followed in derailments and safety-related incidents in recent years. The report included an October 2016 derailment in New Hyde Park in which more than 30 passengers were injured after a work train got stuck on the tracks and was struck by an eastbound Huntington train.

“In several important respects, we found that LIRR’s post-incident investigative practices did not reflect industry-best practices, particularly in the establishment of its incident investigation structure and the assignment of roles for securing the scene, preserving perishable evidence, and releasing employees from an incident site,” the report stated.

The LIRR acknowledged the shortcomings of its response plan, and said revisions will be in place by this year's first quarter. It is also putting together a task force that will include representatives from its corporate safety, transportation services and employee training departments to review the issue.

"We share the Inspector General’s focus on implementing best practices for investigating safety-related events," LIRR president Phillip Eng said in a statement. "While I’m proud of the tremendous effort by our workforce that enabled us to safely restore service in a matter of days — exceeding everyone’s expectations — we always seek opportunities to continuously improve.”

Pokorny's report noted that in the New Hyde Park incident, several employees were allowed to leave without giving statements and before it had been determined whether they had to submit to testing for drugs and alcohol. The report called the practice “a clear failure to adhere to industry standards as well as LIRR’s own policies."

The LIRR's policy also doesn't adequately address other key post-incident activities, including who is responsible for photographing a scene, collecting off-site evidence, such as maintenance and inspection records, and identifying and implementing corrective actions, said the report.

The "lack of clear authority" at the scene of another collision and derailment in Westbury in February 2019 meant that "local elected officials were allowed to walk inside the incident scene" before investigators had finished their work, the report said.

The report pointed out that, in the absence of a designated leader for investigations, the role had occasionally been filled by a member of the LIRR’s legal department — a practice the report called "troubling."

“Because these individuals are charged with protecting the agency’s interests, the thoroughness, independence, and objectivity of the investigative fact-finding process might be impaired if their participation is not properly defined,” the report said.

Anthony Simon, the railroad's union chief, said he would support efforts to improve responses to accidents, but also defended the actions taken by workers often under pressure to keep train service running or to quickly restore it.

"Customer and employee safety always comes first at an incident, regardless of who is identified to take charge and secure a scene," Simon said. "The bottom line is our seasoned workforce that has the knowledge and experience to work through and manage an incident historically do a great job in keeping people safe and recovering from major incidents."

Pokorny’s office made several recommendations, including that the LIRR adopt protocols used by the American Public Transportation Association, an industry trade group, and that it have a member of its corporate safety department lead future derailment investigations.

“I am pleased that LIRR management has accepted all of our recommendations and look forward to working with them in the future to help develop an even more safe and secure mode of transportation,” Pokorny said in a statement.   

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said his group has for years pushed for the LIRR to release a "lessons-learned analysis" after every major safety incident.

"I guess now we know why we haven't seen one," said Epstein, who praised Pokorny's office for examining the issue. "There needs to be a set of rules. And I'm glad that the IG's office is giving them a suggestion of at least where to look."

MTA INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT

MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny found shortcomings in the LIRR's response to major safety incidents, including these two events:

Oct. 8, 2016: An eastbound Huntington train struck a track car that was stuck on the tracks just East of New Hyde Park. Both the train and the track car derailed, and 33 people were injured.

  • Multiple employees were allowed to leave the scene without permission from police, without giving statements, and "even more critically," before it was determined whether they should be tested for drugs or alcohol.
  • Formal interviews of employees involved in the accident were led by the LIRR legal department claims workers — "a troubling illustration of an unusual role" for employees whose main responsibility is to protect the LIRR's legal interests.

Feb. 26, 2019: Two LIRR trains traveling in opposite directions strike an automobile that had driven around the lowered crossing gates on School Street in Westbury, killing the car's three occupants and causing one train to derail and crash into the Westbury Station platform.

  • The "lack of clear authority" in the investigation resulted in seven elected officials being allowed to walk inside the incident scene "even before LIRR’s Safety and Transportation investigators had finished photographing the damaged equipment and structures."

IG RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Assign the role of investigator-in-charge to a member of the Corporate Safety Department staff.
  • Establish standard protocols and assign specific responsibilities, in accordance with industry-best practices, for securing the scene, preserving evidence, taking field statements, determining the need for drug and alcohol testing of employees, and releasing employees from the scene.
  • Clarify that the LIRR's Labor Relations Department is responsible for managing the post-incident formal interviewing process.
  • Adopt the NTSB standard stating that staff responsible for managing litigation or insurance interests are not permitted to participate in a post-incident investigation.

SOURCE: MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny

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