Feds order Metro-North to shut the barn door after the horse escaped


Metro-North Signal Department workers consult circuit diagrams, make signal changes and test the system at Spuyten Duyvil. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / J. P. Chan

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.

Categories : Metro-North

30 Responses to “Feds order Metro-North to shut the barn door after the horse escaped”

  1. benofoz says:

    Maybe the cost of complying with this order will speed up the MTA’s adoption of PTC.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Not that I think those speed reductions have any merit, but I think your headline is misleading. This isn’t shutting the barn door down after the horse escaped. This is more like installing better locks on your doors and windows after you’ve been burglarized. Yes, your laptop’s gone, but you can try preventing future theft.

  2. JD says:

    Could the head conductor be considered a qualified employee for this? If so, then no additional staffing will be required. Just the conductor in the cab during certain sections of the trip.

    • Based on the MTA’s statement, which they sent out about an hour after I finished the post, any conductor is a qualified personnel in this instance. They don’t plan to increase staffing levels.

    • All conductors and many assistant conductors on Metro-North are qualified on the physical characteristics of the railroad, so they will do.

      However, this whole second crew member thing is now moot since MNCR has lowered the speeds at 26 locations to step down big speed limit changes in 19mph increments so there’s no place on the RR where this rule would apply now. In good faith, MNCR will still have the conductor accompany the engineer on the head end through the zones, but only when piratical. In other instances (engine leading, etc.) they will communicate by radio.

    • JeanDavid8 says:

      On most, if not all, US railroads, conductors (as distinguished from ticket punchers, etc.) must be know the entire rule book, including signals and special instructions, and are tested on it (typically once a year). They must also be qualified on the route being travelled. They may not be qualified to operate the locomotive, but in the chain of command, they are usually superior to the locomotive engineer. If they tell the engineer to stop the train, he must. The engineer cannot usually start the train without permission of the conductor. If safety requires it, the engineer can slow or stop the train without explicit permission of the conductor.

      Just as a ship has only one captain, a train has only one conductor.

  3. Duke says:

    So basically, Metro-North now needs more employees on the trains. I’m sure the union loves this and will fight to keep it going as long as possible.

    Meanwhile, there goes our reduced fare hikes because the MTA’s financial picture is improving. Gotta pay for people to babysit the motormen instead.

  4. Chris says:

    Yes – It’s shutting the barn door after the horses are out. But what do you expect large organizations to do – be proactive?

    The price for implementing PTC is enormous – and that’s why the Class I railroads have stalled implementation. In areas such as Metro North’s territory, the issues become even more complex – especially when more than one railroad has trackage rights.

    Even with this being said – we need PTC now! But the MTA can not afford it. This is a case where Federal Government financial assistance serves the greater good, instead of an unchecked free market that will put a price on human life – and pay it when the life lost becomes too expensive to save.


    • Alon Levy says:

      The MTA can’t afford a billion dollars for commuter rail PTC, but it can afford paying ticket-punchers $160-180 million a year?

      And no, the federal government doesn’t need to pay for this. It’s not paying for OSHA compliance, or for ADA compliance (which the MTA also flagrantly violates), or for minimum wage compliance, or for environmental remediation costs.

  5. Spendmore Wastemore says:

    How often will the wonderful new PTC malfunction and snarl the RR?
    Will it lead to automation dependence? If you give a person essentially no responsibility when operating “failsafe” machinery, they will become unable to decide and act quickly when the machine finally goes unsafe. Give it, um, thirty years and failure modes which didn’t seem possible will turn up.

    Yes, some sort of backup alarm/braking device should be installed before 30 mph spots on a 70 mph line. I don’t think it is justified to rebuild the control system for the whole RR.

    btw, the train almost made it. Raising the outer rail one more inch might have gotten the thing around that curve.

    • Alex C says:

      The rest of the civilized world uses some form of PTC on all their railroads. No excuse for the US to not have it still.

      • JeanDavid8 says:

        I bet India considers itself civilized. But their railroad safety must be one of the worst in the world. It is not clear it even has automatic block signals.

    • Joey says:

      Depends. If we adopt an off-the-shelf PTC solution which has been extensively tested and improved in other countries for decades, the chances of failure are quite low.

      If, on the other hand, we develop our own solution from scratch which seems to be the usual American way of doing things…

    • Alon Levy says:

      btw, the train almost made it. Raising the outer rail one more inch might have gotten the thing around that curve.

      It most likely wouldn’t have. Each inch of cant reduces the centrifugal force by 0.166 m/s^2. The centrifugal force felt by the train, exclusive of cant, was about 5.8 m/s^2; based on what cant on such track most likely is, the actual force after taking cant into account was 5.3 m/s^2. Another inch of cant would have mattered very little.

  6. Brandon says:

    So in other words, PTC can save the cost of the second employee on board, and energy costs from lighter rolling stock.

    • Spendmore Wastemore says:

      “PTC can save… energy costs from lighter rolling stock.”

      and perhaps the cost of some crashes. If it also allows higher speeds, meaning fractionally fewer runs to move the same # of pax then it’s a win. I’m not opposed to investment that results in a better RR, but grandstanding feelgood rules dictated by politicians are more likely to make the thing run worse, eg NYCT taking an hour to run “express” from Far Rock to lower Manhattan.

      IMHO the accidents which really justify PTC, such as Chatsworth, were predictable to begin with. Having passenger trains roll in the opposite direction to a regular freight runs
      on a single track
      through a tunnel
      with a curve for more fun
      means sooner or later that light in the tunnel with be the other train, heralding 2 or 3 freight engines which together weigh as much as the entire passenger train.

      By simply not tempting fate like that, the most severe accidents would not have a chance to happen.

      • Alon Levy says:

        Yes, but. It’s really easy to install signals that protect against SPAD. ATSF used to have an ATS system with such capability on its main lines, and either still has it or just recently removed it from the parts of the Southern Transcon hosting the Southwest Chief. The problem is that those legacy systems are lower-capacity, and it takes more modern signals to allow for optimal braking curves based on train capabilities. Enforcing speed limits is also much harder: enforcing SPAD requires two enforceable signal aspects – stop and go; enforcing speed limits required more gradations. At Amagasaki, the line had an ATS system capable of protecting against SPAD, but had no protection from overspeed.

  7. Tower18 says:

    I’m surprised the cab signaling that was in place already did not have a mechanism to handle the engineer disregarding the signals. What’s the point of a signal if there’s no enforcement mechanism?

    The CTA in Chicago implemented cab signaling across their system starting in the 1960s and 1970s. This system seems to work similarly to Metro-North’s, except if the engineer doesn’t respond to a “slow down” warning in a certain period of time, the train brakes. It’s generally regarded to be somewhat buggy, often having “phantom trains” causing slow/stop indications, but just goes to show how a 50 year old system probably would have prevented this accident by at least slowing the train somewhat.

  8. Rob says:

    Spot on, except: the technology DOES NOT exist to ensure that there are zero train fatalities. E.G. LOOK AT WASHINGTON METRO’S CRASHES AND FATALITIES.

    But why did fra impose this order? Well, hussein’s fra administrator is a union guy. Does that not make it clear? MTA should tell fra to go to hell: this epitomizes an unconstitutional fed power grab. There is NOTHING in the Constitution that could be remotely construed as allowing the feds to tell a state how to operate a RR.

    And reminds me of an investigation of a similar accident on a freight RR when they had “firemen”. When asked why he did not brake the train, the “fireman” responded, ” he was being paid to stay awake, not me.”

    • Alon Levy says:

      You realize the PTC order is from 2008, when Bush was in charge, right?

      Washington Metro, as I explained to you last time, has a system that doesn’t meet PTC standards.

      • Rob says:

        Yes, I know the history. It was the kneejerk reaction of a Dem congress to another horrible accident. And Bush basically never vetoed anything, so here we are.

        You may have explained the DC PTC non-compliance to the other Rob. I would be happy to look at it if you would republish it here.

    • Tsuyoshi says:

      I’m no expert on this, but I believe that federal regulation of the national railroad network (to which the Hudson Line is connected) is authorized by the interstate commerce clause. I don’t know about freight service, but there is Amtrak service that goes on those tracks, and continues all the way to Chicago.

      • Epson45 says:

        There is freight service on the tracks. Remember that same area with in a thousand feet months ago, it stink up the neighborhood 2 to 3 days.

  9. Fool says:

    All this over 4 people?

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