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July 07, 2014

Is It Safe To Ride Metro-North?

It has been seven months since a drowsy engineer drove a speeding Metro-North train off the tracks at Spuyten Duyvil, killing four and injuring 59.  Months earlier a derailment and collision near Bridgeport sent 70 to the hospital.
Ever since, the railroad has promised that improving safety is its top priority.  So does that mean the railroad is now “safe”?
Aside from taking the word of management, how are we to know?  Just because we haven’t had another accident doesn’t mean the railroad is safe.  Nobody suspected it was unsafe until those two accidents last year showed us just how dangerous our daily commute had become.
In April this year The Commuter Action Group surveyed 642 commuters and asked them “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” and 56% said yes, 15% said no and 29% said they “weren’t sure”.
Neither am I, but I ride those trains regularly, hoping for the best.  And so far, so good.  I take the railroad at its word when it says safety is its top priority, but I have no way of telling it that’s true.  As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Waiting on a station platform, how can the average commuter look at the tracks, the overhead wires or signals and know that Metro-North is safe?  We can’t even see the engineers because they hide in their control booth behind jerry-rigged cardboard curtains ‘lest riders should watch them at work.
Here’s what we do know.  The trains are running slower (on-time performance was only 79% in May).  And last week we also learned that an entire class of conductor trainees had been dismissed because they were caught cheating on a safety exam.  Good for the MTA for catching and disciplining them.  But the worry is this kind of cheating has been going on for years.  Reassuring?
The only way to be sure that Metro-North is safe is better federal oversight by the FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration.  That agency still hasn’t issued its final report on the May 2013 derailment… and only fined the railroad $5000 following a Metro-North trainee’s mistake, which killed one of their own track foremen.  As US Senator Richard Blumenthal put it, “The watchdogs were asleep.  The FRA has been lax and sluggish.”
That’s why commuters should be reassured that Senator Blumenthal will soon introduce a bill to give the FRA some real teeth:  increasing civil penalties for railroad mistakes, strengthening railroad oversight, mandating new safety gear, introduction of a fatigue management plan for personnel, requiring anonymous reporting systems for whistle-blowers, installation of cameras, alerters and redundant safety systems for track workers.   (Click here to see video of Blumenthal's announcement).
Further, the bill would also require stronger safety standards for crude oil rail-tankers, the “pipelines on wheels” carrying crude oil and petroleum products on US railroads.

The only thing missing?  Mandatory transparency.  I’d hope that the FRA would be required to explain its oversight and reassure all railroad riders of their safety in a simple, understandable manner.  That would make me feel safe.


Christopher Parker said...

Hi Jim,
Several thoughts from a fellow advocate:

First, our culture is wacked about what is "safe." We have no concept of what that means, tolerate things that cause huge numbers of death while obsessing over small numbers. The classic example of course is that no child has ever died or been injured from a razor blade from an apple at Halloween -- while after 9/11 because so many more people drove instead of flew, we had an ADDITIONAL 1,500 deaths of Americans.

The bottom line is you are safer on an unsafe railroad than driving your own car "safely". By a wide margin.

Even if you were on the train that derailed when the engineer seemed to fall asleep, that train had 1,000 people or so on board and virtually of them were fine.

Which, of course, does not answer the question of if Metro-North is unsafe. It seems that Metro-North has recently had a problematic safety record and that there are or were issues and that those issues start with the company culture. Probably it has been so for decades. On the other hand lax safety, doesn't mean unsafe (unless safe means never having an accident at all), because railroad technology is generally safe, railroad cars are sturdy and don't normally eject riders onto the pavement and safegards exist in the technology to protect against the human element.

My experience with private railroads is they respect the FRA and it's safety oversight because they generally strive for safety. The profit motive is at work here (but that motive is not a factor at Metro-North). FRA standards are such that they almost always catch something. The presence of a violation itself is not deeply concerning -- it matters what the violation is (a light out is a safety violation, but unlikely to cause an accident; rail too far out of gauge could) and matters how many there (because that indicates a lax safety culture that is more likely to lead to a slip up).

Fatigue is a different problem, one that is industry wide and affects commuter carriers too when operators have difficult schedules. The hours of service law is useful, but only goes so far.

Christopher Parker said...

The condition of tracks should theoretically never be a safety issue, because if they start to deteriorate, the proper response is a slow order. Tracks that can't handle full track speed are just fine when trains reduce their vibration and track stress by slowing. When tracks cause a derailment it is not normally a visible long-term condition, rather it is a broken rail or a shift in track structure that occurred unexpectedly. Tracks are inspected regularly in order to catch these issues, but it is always possible for an issue to develop between inspections. So that means it's difficult to see a safety issue just by looking at the tracks, although you can tell something about the company if it doesn't put a priority on keeping it's tracks up.

What is more visible is how employees act. Especially if you understand railroad operation rules, if you see employees violate them, it's a concern. Speeding is a good indicator. If the tracks are rated for 79 mph, they probably meet the standard for 85 most of the time too, but it shows a casualness towards safety if that is how engineers approach it. That specific act of going 85 instead of 79 is unlikely to cause an accident, but the thing is that all accidents happen because of a chain of unlikely things that still happened.

One railroad, the Genesee & Wyoming (which happens to be headquartered in Darian CT) uses employee injuries as a proxy for safety in general. It's easy to measure and gives data on a more ongoing regular basis than the infrequent more consequential incidents. It also tends to track safety in general. It's no accident that G&W's employee injury rate is dramatically lower than other railroads. They work at it.

The FRA keeps statistics of reportable safety incidents (most of which are minor and don't make the news) from different railroads in a format that allows comparisons (for example, per carload, per hours worked, per mile, etc). You can tell a lot about the quality of one company vs. another in looking at these statistics. This is what I'd keep an eye on to determine if Metro-North is "safe."