An overemphasis on preventing delays along the commuter railroad's money-making main line led Metro-North officials to routinely put on-time performance well ahead of safety practices and concerns, according to a new federal report released Friday.
The Federal Railroad Administration investigation and report, "Operation Deep Dive," was commissioned following the deadly Metro-North derailment last December in the Bronx that killed four passengers and left dozens of others injured.
And last May, two trains collided near the Fairfield-Bridgeport line, injuring 60 people.
"The report confirms our worst fears: a severely lacking culture of safety at the railroad," U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said during a Friday conference call with the media to discuss the 31-page report's findings.
'Cared Too Little About Safety'
Schumer was joined on the call by FRA head Joseph Szabo, as well as other federal lawmakers from New York and Connecticut.
The federal lawmakers echoed one another in their concern for the report's indictment of the railroad's poor safety practices, and the promise to keep pressure on Metro-North's management make the changes, reforms and implementation of new measures that would enhance safety along the line.
"For me the takeaway from this report is not that Metro-North cared too much about on-time performance, but that it cared too little about safety," U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said. "It can and should do both, both are feasible and achievable."
The FSA's full report is posted and shared above as a downloadable PDF file.
'They Were Not Doing Safety Testing'
Szabo said his agency's report had "three overarching findings" regarding Metro-North's operations:
- a "clear overemphasis on on-time performance to a detriment of safety"
- ineffective safety department and poor safety culture
- inadequate and ineffective training provided for workers
Szabo said the push to keep trains on the company's revenue producing main line on schedule meant that high-quality track inspections, high-speed operation testing and track maintenance along the route were often not done — because that would result in temporarily shutting portions of the track down to running trains.
"Because of concern of delaying revenue service trains on the main line, they were not doing safety testing," he said.
'A New Culture of Safety'
Metro-North officials now have until May 17 to submit to the FRA a plan that addresses all the actions outlined in the agency's report.
Szabo said the FRA will meet monthly with Metro-North management to review and evaluate their progress.
In addition, the agency will soon be organizing a meeting among all railroad CEOs across the country to review and discuss Operation Deep Dive's findings, as well as share "lessons learned and best practices."
"We owe it to the public every day to do better," Szabo said of rail travel, both commuter and freight, across the nation.
And lawmakers agreed.
"We need to have a new culture of safety on the rail lines," U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat that represents New York's 18th Congressional district in the Hudson Valley, said. "If this doesn't wake us all up, I don't know what will."
Transportation Advocate Jim Cameron Reacts
Jim Cameron of the Commuter Action Group issued this news release in reaction to the report:
“The report by the Federal Railroad Administration’s “Operation Deep Dive” safety review at Metro-North is a scathing indictment of years of neglect and mismanagement at the railroad,” says longtime commuter advocate Jim Cameron, founder of the Commuter Action Group.
“This brief report confirms our worst suspicions about Metro-North:
- On-time performance was the top priority, not safety.
- Training for new hires has been inadequate.
- Management has not been enforcing safety rules about things as simple as “no cell phone use” on the job.
- Railroad workers are fatigued because too many are working lucrative over-time shifts because of unfilled staff positions ( that also fatten their pensions).
- Metro-North managers are not conducting mandated surprise inspections of locomotive engineers, testing their knowledge and observing them on the job.
“It is one thing to solve the safety and maintenance issues by finding more funding, and that must be done. But a far greater challenge is changing the operational ‘culture’ at Metro-North to instill safety as job one and hold every employee accountable,” says Cameron.
“The FRA is to be commended for this report... the first of its type and the first time any US railroad has been so intensely studied. Now it’s Metro-North’s job to fix what’s wrong... and the CT DOT’s job to be sure they get it right,” says Cameron.