December 11, 2013

Derailment Kills Four... But Who's To Blame?

It could have been you or me that died in that derailment in the Bronx December 1st.  Instead, it was Jim Lovell, Donna Smith, James Ferrari and Kisook Ahn who lost their lives riding that train.

It will be months before the NTSB finishes its investigation of what happened and why, but it is clear that it could have been prevented.  But why wasn’t it?

None of us yet has the answers, but there are plenty of questions:

·       Why did engineer William Rockefeller first claim that the train’s brakes had failed only later to claim he had “zoned out”?  Which of those explanations was a lie and which an excuse?

·       Why did the engineer’s union go to the press to plead his case, only to be kicked out of the NTSB’s investigation for breaking the rules?  Is this a PR case study or a forensic investigation?

·       Why did his train’s controls lack an alerter system that would have warned him that he was going 80 mph approaching a 30 mph curve?

·       Why was Metro-North President Howard Permut noticeably absent at the crash scene and subsequent NTSB press conferences for five days after the deadly crash?  Isn’t he responsible for this railroad? [Correcton:  see Comment #3 below this posting]

·       Why didn’t Mr. Permut and MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast attend the wakes and funerals of those who died on their railroad?  How do they keep their jobs when employee morale is as low as passenger confidence?

·       Why does Metro-North have such a dismal record of disciplining engineers who violate its rules, suspending only 49 and firing one in a four year period while the LIRR suspended 884 and fired 12 over the same period?

·       Why did Metro-North drag its feet for five years after a federal order to install Positive Train Control while other commuter railroads met the mandate?

·       Why did the FRA wait until there had been three derailments, a track foreman’s death and the Con Ed meltdown to admonish Metro-North in writing for its dismal safety record? 

Since that Sunday morning high-speed derailment, I have been on an emotional rollercoaster from depression and grief to anger and disbelief.  Nobody seems to be accepting responsibility for what happened and yet everybody is to blame.

Engineer Rockefeller, with an otherwise spotless record, made a deadly mistake that will haunt him the rest of his life.  His union argues it was a medical condition, so he’s not criminally negligent so he may never stand trial.

Metro-North management argues that speed alerters are not required on older trains, though they certainly seem necessary and will probably be retrofitted. 

With PR chutzpah, Metro-North says the last five months of disasters don’t blemish 30+ years of safe operations… that they are anomalies.  Really?  The voyage of the Titanic was so smooth until they hit that iceberg.

Does anyone really believe all these calamities are just bad timing? Am I the only one who sees a pattern that worsens with each passing month?

After the July 2011 stranding of a train near Westport (on the hottest day of the year) when passengers felt so abandoned by Metro-North they called 911 to be rescued by fire fighters, I asked a simple question:  Is it time to fire Metro-North?

Until now, two years later, nobody has taken that question seriously.  Why?

As I wrote in my last column explaining my recent resignation from the CT Commuter Rail Council, “Metro-North and the Connecticut DOT are in a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation”.

Who’s to blame for the death of those four commuters? 

Everybody who has failed to change that situation.


Fubar said...

I have commuted to NYC on Metro-North since 1995. They are a rail industry descendant and inherited the New Haven corridor. Because I have seen and experienced poor service and customer/commuter abuse I expect it will continue. Fares go up in spite of the helpless commuter. hey are like any other gov't agency run service. They take in & spend lots of $$. They are wasteful and inefficient. Surveys are timid and canned. They don't want the uncomfortable truth from passengers. I say if you haven't learned and fine tuned the service, after a century of running rail in the Northeast, get out and let someone else step up. Weather is a poor excuse. Leaves are a poor excuse. Pressing timetables over passenger well being is unforegiveable. For what we pay, that any passenger should have to ride the old cars, tolerate bar cars on a.m. commutes, and sit in repulsive toilet cars, is a disgrace. Until the commuter has another rail option fares should be frozen and Metro-North should be forced to clean house and get their shit together. p.s. it is rumored that MTA Madison Ave. regards the New Haven line as a cash cow that will pay fare hikes with little objection despite poor service.

Fubar said...

Our governor ran on a platform that was honest.... he told us he would raise taxes to solve problems. And the people voted him in ! We could've sent any monkey to Hartford to get that creative. The upcoming 5% fare increase is one, I'm sure, our Governor and Madison Ave. have no second thoughts about.


NOTE: The following comment was e-mailed to me by MNRR:

Dear Jim,

Your most recent column contains a couple of errors that need to be corrected:

“Why was Metro-North President Howard Permut noticeably absent at the crash scene and subsequent NTSB press conferences for five days after the deadly crash? Isn’t he responsible for this railroad?”

Howard was at the scene both Sunday and Monday. Were you there? Or did you fail to see him on TV? Chairman Prendergast was there along with Governor Cuomo and the ranking people are always the spokesmen. As for Howard’s attendance at NTSB news conferences, the NTSB runs its own show and does not invite participation by the properties they are investigating.

“Why didn’t Mr. Permut and MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast attend the wakes and funerals of those who died on their railroad?”

Condolences were expressed privately. Neither man desired to intrude on family services and make the wakes and funerals more of a media side show than they already were.

These misstatements amount to personal attacks and I’d like to see you correct them.

Thank you in advance,

Marjorie Anders
Media Liaison, Metro-North Railroad & Long Island Rail Road
Press Office

Unknown said...

Dear Majorie,

I ride Metro North (MNR) and was dumbstruck at the lack of any acknowledgement that four people were killed by a “zoned out” MNR employee. It was business as usual Monday morning and every day after, until on December 19th when a legal sized “An Important Message to our Customers” appeared on the seats for the PM commute. 18-days later, it finally cleared Legal, and informed us MNR was shaken to the core by the accident. Really? I hadn’t noticed. You work in the press office. Was that the strategy? Pretend it never happened. I must say it was working really well until the recent hearings, so bravo.

Anyway, after the first 3-sentances, the rest of the Important Message went on to tell us how awesome Metro North is. Now that is some good Press Officing by you guys. A simpleton like me would have had the Conductors out there making a statement on the PA of all trains. Telling the riders how terrible the employees feel about the disaster, explaining to them whether there were any tricky sections on the upcoming ride and fielding rider questions. But that’s a little hard. It takes effort. The Union might not agree. Therefore, it was back to the flyers.

Thanks for the flyer and have a nice day.

Jim Sullivan


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