Home Metro-North MNR Updates: Full service returns, push-pull setup questioned; lawsuits on tap

MNR Updates: Full service returns, push-pull setup questioned; lawsuits on tap

by Benjamin Kabak

Crews have worked throughout the week to repair the damaged Metro-North tracks. Photo: Patrick Cashin / MTA

After running a nearly full slate of service on Wednesday, Metro-North restored all service along the Hudson Line for this morning’s rush hour commute. Crews had worked through the day yesterday rebuilding a second track in the area of the derailment, and Sperry Rail Car cleared it for service after ultransonic testing. Today’s morning commute went off without a hitch.

Work on track four — the outer track which had been essentially destroyed — will continue for the remainder of the week. Metro-North reported that yesterday morning’s Hudson Line ridership was approximately 25 percent below normal peak for a Wednesday, but those riders were generally using Harlem Line trains and were expected to return to the Hudson route today. The people who were alleging that they’d turn to a much more dangerous car commute likely did not do so.

Meanwhile, the push-pull setup that Metro-North and many other rail systems employs is coming under fire right now. As Metro-North can’t turn around trains at depots, the engine remains at the northern end of the train. It pulls going north and pushes heading south. The Times reports on the concerns:

The Metro-North Railroad train that derailed on Sunday included a system designed to warn an operator of a potential accident. But such an “alerter,” which can automatically apply the brakes if an operator is unresponsive, was not in the cab where William Rockefeller apparently fell into an early-morning daze at the controls. It was at the other end of the train. On Wednesday, three days after the Manhattan-bound Hudson line train tumbled off the rails in the Bronx, killing four people and injuring more than 70, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that an alerter system had been installed in the locomotive pushing the train, but not in the front cab, where the engineer was positioned, properly, at the time of the crash…

It is not clear how long before the crash Mr. Rockefeller became inattentive, or whether the alerter system could have prevented the derailment or reduced its severity. It appears likely, though, that if Mr. Rockefeller had experienced a similar episode for an extended period on a northbound trip — when he would have been stationed in the locomotive — the siren might have sounded. In effect, trains configured and equipped like the one in the derailment employ the “alerter” system on only half of their runs.

While much of the safety discussion since the crash has focused on an expensive control system that remains years away from reality for the transportation authority, rail experts have said that a number of lower-cost remedies could have been put in place — and should be in the future — both inside the train and across the system governing it…One potential safety improvement would be ensuring that the alerter systems were installed in every cab. The authority had said that new cars would include the systems in all cabs.

Installing alerts in places where the engineer is for half of a train’s runs would, you know, make common sense. What else is there to say really?

Finally, as Crain’s New York reports on the expected legal fallout. The MTA is bracing for lawsuits, but most of the damages will be covered by insurance. Here’s Andrew Hawkins’ take:

The Metro-North derailment that killed four passengers and injured 70 will likely cost the Metropolitan Transportation Authority tens of millions of dollars in wrongful death and injury claims—but insurance may cover all but $10 million.

After that $10 million in self-insurance is exhausted, the agency will have an additional $50 million it maintains through its captive insurer, First Mutual Transportation Assurance Co., said Laureen Coyne, director of risk and insurance management for the MTA. In addition, the MTA maintains $350 million in liability insurance through multiple carriers in the commercial markets.

In total, the agency is covered for up to $410 million in liabilities and says it stands ready to deal with any and all claims, which are likely to materialize in the months ahead as the nature of the injuries and causes of the accident become clearer.

The MTA could not comment on whether the crash and subsequent payouts would cause its premiums to increase, but it seems for now, that the budget contingencies and insurance plans will keep costs in line with what the agency can afford to pay. The wheels have already been put in motion for the first of many suits to come.

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Kai B December 5, 2013 - 11:42 am

So the problem with push-pull isn’t push-pull itself, but instead, that it causes southbound trains to be controlled by a cab car with 1980s safety systems versus northbound trains, which are controlled by a modern (2000s-era) locomotive.

Alon Levy December 5, 2013 - 12:21 pm

Thank you. Although the FRA has other safety concerns about push-pull, which it bans at higher speeds, those concerns are unfounded.


Brandon December 5, 2013 - 2:12 pm

Anyone want to take bets on whether politicians will propose

a) Putting alerters in all control cars, costing $?
b) Building huge wyes or circles to turn trains around, taking tons of capital, and wasting staff and train time

Alon Levy December 5, 2013 - 3:54 pm

Probably A. B involves NIMBYs.

John-2 December 5, 2013 - 6:20 pm

You could turn the push-pulls at Grand Central, as long as you always brought them in on the outer platforms with access to the loop track. Not sure how that would fly with the number of trains involved and their access in both AM and PM rush hours to the GCT loop, though.

Scott E December 5, 2013 - 8:53 pm

My guess is option “C”; put a locomotive at both ends of the train and always operate in “pull” mode. (As far as the issue of having space to berth the trains at Grand Central with a locomotive in front, that will be disregarded).

Alon Levy December 6, 2013 - 3:21 pm

That’s very energy-inefficient, since you’d be lugging 130 tons of locomotive that aren’t needed. Prohibited from having the Talgos at the end of the train, the Amtrak Cascades puts a baggage car at the other end instead and equips it with a cab (“cabbage car”).

John December 5, 2013 - 12:15 pm

I (and many others) assumed that all trains were already set up with a basic alerting system like they’re describing here, no matter which direction they were going. The fact that the engineer could doze off lightly for even just a couple minutes and cause a crash like this was shocking to me. I’m more of a casual “railfan” and many readers knew all of this, but really it doesn’t seem like there’s a good excuse for not having at least the basic technology in place, rather than what they had, which was essentially nothing.

Larry Littlefield December 5, 2013 - 12:22 pm

This has nothing to do with this incident, but the press has reported a “brain drain” at MetroNorth due to retirements as an explanation for negative trends in general.

FYI the state offered an early retirement “incentive” in 2010, allowing state workers to start collecting years earlier. Could that be why so many workers retired at once.

The lie is that these sorts of deals “cost nothing” or “save money.” But that because no one puts in enough money to cover the higher pension costs until suddenly there is a funding problem years later. The cost are actually huge.

If a rash of retirements led to a loss of institutional knowledge at MetroNorth, you can add that to the costs.

Patrick @ The LIRR Today December 5, 2013 - 1:40 pm

That’s just about true. On Metro-North, most retire after being on the railroad for 30 years or so, and since Metro-North just had it’s 30 year anniversary not too long ago, a lot of their employees hit the 30-year mark at once and punched out.

Rob December 5, 2013 - 3:00 pm

The discussion abt alerters is misleading/incomplete. The cab cars do have a device intended to prevent the problem, but they are an older version and apparently not as effective, the dead-man switch.

Kogler December 6, 2013 - 6:18 pm

The push-pull setup itself should not be called into question, only the equipment inside the cab cars available for checking on the operator (dead man switch). Throughout the world, the cab car arrangement is used safely, both at high speeds (see Amtrak, German Railways, all up to 140 mph) and in systems with tight curves and mountain passes (see U.S., Austria, Switzerland,…).
I do not question that if a car full of passengers in the front of a train gets rammed by another one, the result will be much worse than having a locomotive at the front of a train. In that way, cab cars might be slightly less safe, but this is not the issue at hand for this accident.
The big issue is that cab cars have not been upgraded to the latest alerter system, which the locomotives have already built-in. So, install the required technology or get new cab cars – surely this is the least costly option, instead of having a locomotive on each end of a train or building wyes. Do the newer NJT cab cars (Comet V, Multilevels) have newer-style alerters, not just a dead-man pedal?

Nyland8 December 9, 2013 - 7:32 am

So … besides GCT, how many other terminals does MNRR have? 8? 10?

Is it out of the question to keep another locomotive at a short siding at each of those terminals, and simply hook up in the other direction, uncoupling the now-rearward locomotive which then gets moved back to the siding awaiting the next train?

Sure … it would mean owning and using another 10 locomotives. But you wouldn’t have to tow them from one end of the line to the other. Just swap them to the front of the next train out and park the uncoupled one. Taking a rest will reduce their maintenance costs and extend their useful lifespan.


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