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June 18, 2012

If You See Something...


Ever since 9-11 commuters on Metro-North have been told “If you see something, say something.”

One commuter recently did that, taking a smart-phone video of an engineer reading a newspaper while running his train at high speed, then posting that video on YouTube.
To their credit, management at the railroad reacted quickly, suspending and disciplining the 24 year veteran.  They also reminded every engineer on the railroad that this was inappropriate, dangerous and unacceptable.
How did those train operators and their union react?  With a cover-up, literally.
Since the video was posted, many if not most engineers have been covering their windows withnewspapers and cardboard to prevent anyone from seeing them at work.  They claim this is to reduce glare and reflection of interior lights, but we know better.
In my view, the only glare they want to avoid is the glare of public opinion for potentially being caught not doing their job.
How can commuters “say something” if they can’t see anything?
Metro-North says there is no rule forbidding such a “cover-up”, but they’re conducting a best practices review of other railroads to see how they handle this.  Whatever the results of that research, it will doubtless require union cooperation to take down the papers and reassure passengers about who is running their train and how.
Meantime, don’t worry, says Metro-North, we have inspectors on trains watching for misbehavior.  Oh, really?
Days after this YouTube video, New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an audit showing that the railroad’s train inspectors were often web surfing rather than conducting on-train inspections.  While they should have been riding trains to see if conductors used seat-checks to prevent fare evasion or make surprise visits to engineers in their cab to see if they were reading, those inspectors were goofing off.
The audit says that the five inspectors and supervisor missed one third of their assignments while pulling down $832,676 a year. Four of the inspectors were paid $170,000 each for work not done.
As Bloomberg Business Week reports: “Investigators also found that an assistant vice president in charge of the unit referred a relative to a worker under her supervision. The relative was then hired, despite receiving a lower rating than two other applicants, and was given an $84,700 salary, about $27,000 more than was posted, auditors found. The employee and the assistant vice president had their paychecks deposited into the same bank account, investigators found.”
Since the allegations came to light, the inspection unit has been disbanded.  So who’s riding the trains, watchdogging the employees?
All this comes on top of other malfeasance uncovered by DiNapoli, including a 30 person Metro-North unit that abused overtime rules to pad their pay by $1 million and future pension payments by $5.5 million.
And last fall, eleven LIRR workers were indicted on charges of taking $1 billion in disability benefits for alleged on the job injuries.  Investigators tracked them only to see them playing golf and living the high life.
Who pays for these scams?  We do, through our fares and taxes.
So when Metro-North says they need more money because of rising costs, maybe we should ask its President, Howard Permut, just who’s running this railroad… managers appointing their relatives to jobs they don’t do… no-show employees abusing OT… or the unions covering up misbehavior at the controls?

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