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Feds demand MTA action after deadly Metro-North derailment

metro-north repairs

metro-north repairs Credit: Bryan Smith

Alarmed over a string of accidents on the Metro-North Railroad, including the one on Sunday that killed four passengers, federal officials ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to immediately establish a system that would let employees report potentially dangerous conditions without fear of punishment.

In a sternly-worded letter, Joseph C. Szabo, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that regulates the commuter rail, told MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast that federal officials have “serious concerns” over the four accidents on the Metro-North since May in which a total of five people were killed and another 129 injured.

“The specific causes of each of these recent accidents may vary, but regardless of the reasons, 4 serious accidents in less than 7 months is simply unacceptable,” Szabo said in the Dec. 3 letter.

The letter was written two days after the Metro-North Hudson line train, traveling at 82 mph in a 30 mph zone, careened off tracks just north of the Spuyten Duyvil station and skidded to the edge of the Harlem River about 7:20 a.m. Sunday.

The engineer, William Rockefeller, “nodded” off moments before the derailing, Anthony Bottalico, of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, which represents engineers, said Tuesday. Rockefeller has been suspended without pay.
Full service on the Metro-North Hudson line resumed Wednesday, according to the MTA.

Adam Lisberg, a spokesman for the MTA, said the authority will implement the confidential close call reporting system, commonly refer to as C3RS, throughout Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. He did not know when it will be in place.

“We have been moving forward on a confidential close call reporting system, and we look forward to working with the [Federal Railroad Administration] to implement it,” Lisberg said.

The confidential close call reporting system, federal officials said, is in place on other rail lines across the country and has “proven effective” in identifying safety issues and reducing injuries and accidents.

The MTA is evaluating a number of safety improvements, Lisberg said, and once the agency decides with ones are worth pursuing it will let federal officials and the public know.

Szabo demanded some of the answers by Thursday and hinted that his agency will use its oversight power to impose safety enhancement if it has to.

On May 17, two trains on the New Haven line collided during evening rush after one derailed near Fairfield, Conn. At least 70 people were injured. Less than two weeks later, on May 28, a track foreman was struck and killed in West Haven, Conn. On July 18, a CSX freight train derailed near where the Metro-North train left the tracks on Sunday.

“Not only have some of these incidents had tragic and catastrophic consequences, they have also eroded the public’s confidence in the safety of the railroad transportation system,” Szabo said.

While investigators continue to probe the cause of Sunday’s deadly crash, Gov. Andrew Cuomo Wednesday said he supports a high-tech system that would automatically stop runaway trains, referred to as positive train-control system.

“Those look like the way of the future. That’s what we are working toward,” Cuomo said on a public-radio show. “What are the best systems that can be installed, how quickly, how much money, how do we find the financing and what is the state-of-the-art on these positive train control systems?”

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