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Robert Luden death: Feds fault Metro-North in crash that killed track worker

File photo of a Metro-North train in Connecticut.

File photo of a Metro-North train in Connecticut. Photo Credit: Faye Murman

Federal safety officials on Monday cited Metro-North for the railroad's "ineffective" safety procedures that last month allowed a rail traffic controller-in-training to send a high-speed train down tracks that were supposed to be off limits, killing a veteran foreman.

The finding was included in a four-page letter sent Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board to Metro-North president Howard Permut, highlighting safety procedures that broke down in the weeks leading up to the May 28 death of Robert Luden, a 27-year veteran and married father of two from East Haven, Conn.

"The procedures currently in place are ineffective," NTSB chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement released Monday. "Metro-North can take immediate action to ensure the safety of work crews on their tracks."

Luden, 52, was killed 11 days after a New Haven-bound train going 70 mph derailed during a Friday evening rush hour and collided with an oncoming train, injuring more than 70 people. The incidents have put the nation's busiest commuter railroad on the defensive as it tries to assure commuters that its trains are safe to ride.

The NTSB said that three weeks before Luden's death, a different rail traffic controller working in Grand Central Terminal mistakenly put a track into service that was supposed to be shut down, prompting Metro-North to add a computerized safety enhancement that required the traffic controller to validate his or her intent to reopen the track.

That enhancement was not enough to prevent the death of Luden, who was killed while working on the construction of a new Metro-North station in West Haven, Conn.

In her letter, Hersman suggested that Metro-North give track work crews "shunting" devices to attach to rails in work zones. The safety devices alert Grand Central traffic controllers that a track is being worked on and flashes a stop signal on the consoles of engineers operating approaching trains.

"The NTSB is urgently recommending that Metro-North require redundant signal protection, such as shunting, for maintenance-of-way work crews who depend on the train dispatcher to control access to occupied sections of track," the agency wrote.

Metro-North promised to heed NTSB's recommendations and add safety improvements as quickly as possible, but said it's not likely to include the shunting devices. Railroad officials said that's because the devices only work in areas where overhead catenary wires power the trains, and many of Metro-North's tracks receive power from a third rail.

"Safety is our first priority," Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said.

She explained that Metro-North acted immediately after the fatal accident to activate a new procedure to prevent a rail traffic controller from reopening a track without the explicit approval of the chief rail traffic controller.

Additionally, Metro-North said it is working on a "technological solution" beyond the current system, which involves verbal communication between track workers and controllers.

"It will require mechanical input from the roadway worker," Anders said. "The details of this method are being developed."

About 10:40 a.m. on May 28, Luden contacted the control center in Grand Central and asked that "main track 1" be taken out of service, the NTSB said. A rail traffic controller placed computerized blocking devices on the track so that Luden and a crane operator could begin their work.

Shortly before noon, the student rail traffic controller removed the blocking devices from the track without first getting authorization from Luden, according to the NTSB. Recorded messages and telephone conversations found no evidence Luden told either of the rail traffic controllers in Grand Central to remove the block.

"The qualified RTC (rail traffic controller) said that he may have momentarily stepped away from the console, as he had not seen the student RTC remove the blocking devices," the NTSB said.

In the final moments before Luden was killed, a crane operator working on a nearby track tried to warn his co-worker that danger was approaching when he heard the loud blast of a horn from a train closing in from the east.

"As the train neared he (the crane operator) realized the train was on main track 1 (the out-of-service track) and tried to warn the track foreman," according to the NTSB. "The crane operator swung the crane's main boom clear of main track 1 and continued to try to warn the track foreman of the approaching train but was unsuccessful."

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