Following last Sunday’s derailment and a series of fatal and non-fatal Metro-North accidents over the past year, the Federal Railroad Administration has ordered Metro-North to up its locomotive crew staffing and improve its overall security measures by the end of the year. While the new measures may lead to further overstaffing on a railroad that already spends too much on personnel, if the MTA doesn’t comply by December 31, it — and its executives — could be subject to steep fines and federal charges.
On Friday afternoon, the FRA issued an emergency order detailing the past year’s worth of problems and ordering immediate changes to MNR’s signal system and staffing approach. “Safety is our highest priority, and we must do everything we can to learn from this tragic crash and help prevent future derailments,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “While we assist the National Transportation Safety Board in carrying out its investigation, this Emergency Order will help ensure that other Metro-North trains travel at appropriate, safe speeds.”
The 14-page order details the Spuyten Duyvil derailment as well as two May incidents and the July derailment of a CSX freight train near Spuyten Duyvil. All four incidents are still under review by the FRA, but as the feds investigate the root causes of the recent problems, the agency issued Friday’s emergency order to head off any further problems. As is common with orders from the FRA, this one seems a bit heavy handed to me.
In essence, the FRA is concerned that Metro-North’s signal system at various locations is not equipped to handle trains running at high speeds that shouldn’t be. For instance, since Metro-North doesn’t have a positive train control system in place along the Spuyten Duyvil curve, the railroad is relying on on its engineers to observe speed restrictions. When William Rockefeller reportedly dozed off last Sunday, his train sped through the curve at 50 miles per hour above the recommended speed. The results were catastrophic.
So now, Metro-North is facing a temporary order to ensure that two qualified crew members are in the controlling locomotive cab or passenger car control compartment at locations along their routes where the speed drops by 20 miles per hour or more. This order will be in effect until signal systems and the corresponding Automatic Train Control system can be modified to enable “adequate advance warning or and adherence to” any speed restrictions in place. Metro-North must identify modifications to be in compliance with this order as soon as possible by December 31, and the staffing requirements will be effective as of Monday, December 10.
So what’s the issue? In a statement along with the emergency order, FRA administration Joseph Szabo spoke about the need to keep the public safe. “Last year was the safest on record for our nation’s rail industry,” he said. “Even with a 43 percent decline in train accidents nation-wide over the past decade, we must remain steadfast and vigilant to ensure passengers and employees are safe. The public deserves better and our mission is to drive continuous safety improvement.”
I’m all in favor of safety, and the technology exists to ensure that there are zero train fatalities. Now, though, the MTA will have to find two qualified employees for each speed change. Those employees are those are “qualified on the physical characteristics of territory over which the train is operating, who is qualified on the signal systems on the territory, and who has been trained to apply the emergency brake to stop a train.” If a conductor is qualified, he or should could be that second person, but then ticket collection would suffer. If no conductors are qualified, the MTA will have to up-staff their trains until the signal system is in compliance with the FRA’s EO. It seems as though the cost of complying with this order is likely to outweigh the benefits.
In response, the MTA accepted the FRA’s suggestions and noted that Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road will comply with the order. This evening, the MTA unveiled its plans for Monday. Engineers have installed new signal projections for the Spuyten Duyvil area which include automatic breaking near the curve. By Tuesday, MNR conductors will stand with engineers at the control cab through critical curves to verbally confirm speed limits. If the train layout precludes a physical presence, the personnel will communicate via radio. All trains will be equipped with alerter devices within the next year, and the MTA will reduce maximum speeds at 26 locations to ensure that there will be no areas where speed limits drop by more than 20 miles per hour. The MTA does not anticipate needing to adjust schedules as a result. Transit and Bridges & Tunnels, though exempt from FRA oversight, will conduct safety stand-downs this week as well.
As now, PTC won’t be ready until 2019, but the MTA is facing increasing pressure to respond to safety concerns sooner. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in fact, sent off a letter to MTA head Tom Prendergast urging an “accelerated” effort to implement PTC. Whether those concerns — and the FRA’s order — are overstated is a question I addressed last week. I’ll leave it for you to decide if this response is appropriate or if the FRA is simply closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped. It strikes me as a politically expedient and seemingly necessary, if heavy-handed, response to a problem that should have been avoided long ago.