FRA set for ‘Deep Dive’ on Metro-North safety

By · Published in 2013

Crews installed speed restriction signs at Metro-North’s Port Chester station yesterday. Photo: MTA / Patrick Cashin

Less than two weeks after a fatal crash that killed four people and a few days after the MTA rushed to implement federally mandated safety improvements, the Federal Railroad Administration has announced it will begin an exhaustive review of Metro-North’s “safety culture” over the next two months. The 60-day review will commence on Monday, and this so-called Operation Deep Dive is the first of its kind.

“Safety is our top priority, and this in-depth investigation will help ensure that Metro-North is doing everything possible to improve its safety record,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “Together with our other recent efforts, Operation Deep Dive will give travelers the peace of mind they deserve when traveling throughout the railroad’s region.”

According to the FRA, the review will be comprehensive and will explore the following factors:

  • Track, signal and rolling stock maintenance, inspection and repair practices;
  • Protection for employees working on rail infrastructure, locomotives and rail cars;
  • Communication between mechanical and transportation departments at maintenance facilities;
  • Operation control center procedures and rail traffic controller training;
  • Compliance with federal Hours of Service regulations, including fatigue management programs;
  • Evaluating results of operational data to measure efficiency of employees’ execution and comprehension of all applicable federal regulations;
  • Locomotive engineer oversight;
  • Engineer and conductor certification; and
  • Operating crew medical requirements.

Once the review wraps in mid-February, the FRA will produce a report with its findings and recommendations. Then agency will assess Metro-North’s compliance with the safety order issued last week and will assess if other actions are necessary. According to various reports, the FRA decision stemmed not only from the fatal crash earlier this month but also from a series of accidents, fatal and non-fatal, over the course of 2013.

For its part, Metro-North has seemingly embraced the review. In comments to The Times, a spokesman said the agency was examining its safety culture and working to assess “whether there are any common factors” to the various accidents this month. Meanwhile, the MTA is hoping that, in light of recent bad press and the perception of the problem, it can find a silver lining in this cloud. Ted Mann of The Wall Street Journal reports on a large fiscal ask:

Also Thursday, the MTA asked the FRA for a new $1 billion loan from a federally controlled program to pay for installation of positive train control, or PTC, a next-generation signal system that is intended to prevent train crashes caused by operator error, including speeding.

The $1 billion loan request comes in addition to the $2.2 billion MTA has already sought to help pay for East Side Access, a massive, subterranean new terminal station for the Long Island Rail Road beneath the streets north of Grand Central Terminal. That loan request has not been approved.

In a letter to Administrator Joseph Szabo, Mr. Prendergast said the federal loan would provide a much needed infusion of cash as the MTA develops PTC systems for Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. The MTA is among a number of large commuter railroads that said they do not expect to meet the December 2015 deadline to install PTC systems on all inter-city passenger and many freight rail lines.

As Mann notes, the $1 billion request is for — surprise! — $300 million more than the MTA originally priced out a PTC installation. It’s unclear why the project is over budget, but the new number comes as no surprise. As Mann notes as well, the MTA does not believe that it will be in compliance with a 2015 deadline for PTC, but New York’s is hardly the only transit agency facing such a problem. Legislation to extend the deadline to 2020 is pending the U.S. Senate.

Categories : Metro-North

25 Responses to “FRA set for ‘Deep Dive’ on Metro-North safety”

  1. Stephen Smith says:

    …or PTC, a next-generation signal system…

    For how many decades after its invention can you still call a technology “next-gen”?

  2. Alon Levy says:

    For those keeping track at home, the per-kilometer (and per-trainset) cost of ERTMS Level 2 in Denmark translates to about $1.1 billion between the LIRR and Metro-North, ex-New Haven Line. And that is actually a next-generation signaling system, with the potential for large increases in capacity.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      No wonder that Danish prime minister was smiling. But I’ll bet the Feds won’t let us hire them, or something else would screw it up.

      On the other hand, $1 billion for the Hudson and Harlem line seems a lot cheaper than a NYCT signal project. Perhaps Amtrak can glom on to this and better signaling can be extended to Albany.

  3. Eric F says:

    “As Mann notes, the $1 billion request is for — surprise! — $300 million more than the MTA originally priced out a PTC installation”

    42% overrun for signals using existing technology. But ARC would have been on budget.

    • VLM says:

      No one has made that argument. Just stop. Go back to your 1950s “more lanes won’t mean more cars” arguments. They’re just as effectively stupid.

      • Eric F says:

        Actually, current progressive orthodoxy is that car use is falling, which is in spite of no reduction in lanes.

        Lanes are what you might call an independent variable.

        • Bolwerk says:

          You’re the only person here with anything faithful orthodoxy.

          The facts: car use is falling nationally, though not precipitously.* Lanes are being added on the whole. The Bush/Obama stimuli added at least some. Also, you don’t know the difference between a constant and an independent variable.

          Highly likely: while use falls nationally, it doesn’t mean it isn’t growing in some places where lanes are being added, and it probably is. As older car-oriented suburbs depress economically, the residents are probably relocating to new car-oriented suburbs.

          * I would have to double check, but it was during recession from the reign of Bush I.

    • Bolwerk says:

      ARC could have been on budget if Chris Christie had those vaunted mad leadership skillz.

    • Alon Levy says:

      But it’s not really existing technology – it’s a one-of-a-kind system developed by Siemens specifically for the use of the LIRR and Metro-North. It’s critical to distinguish the capabilities required of PTC, which are decades-old technology, and specific implementations (such as ACSES, ITCS, ERTMS, D-ATC, and other alphabet soups). The implementation the MTA is getting is not any of the existing systems, although it’s designed to be compatible with an existing system, namely ACSES.

  4. Woody says:

    Looks like the feds intend to study everything except the problems that arise due to the fact that it’s normal for human beings to sleep during the dark.

    The engineer who nodded off reported to work at 5:10 a.m. iirc. In other words, by his body’s natural rhythms, he should have been asleep. A couple of hours later nature overtook him and he nodded off.

    In that way, he had something in common with the operators of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, among other sleepyheads.

    • SEAN says:

      In other words, by his body’s natural rhythms, he should have been asleep. A couple of hours later nature overtook him and he nodded off.

      Lets not forget the #1 rule in the workplace today, you are on call 24/7. And if you dare to do something that interrupts that prospect such as sleep, then you aren’t dedicated enough.

      Sarcasm with a few hints of truth.

      • Alon Levy says:

        No, it’s shift work; he’s not on call 24/7, and at least according to the NTSB, he had sufficient time to get a full night’s sleep.

        That said, it’s interesting whether train accidents are more frequent when operator shifts started too early.

        • Woody says:

          And what kind of shifts? The very worst are the rotating shifts like 12 midnight to 8 a.m. for two weeks, then 4 p.m. to 12 midnight for two weeks, then 8 a.m. to 4 p.m for two weeks.

          If a body is on a shift that has no relation to sunshine or the body’s circadian rhythms, over 6 straight months it can almost adjust. But when the waking sleeping hours change every couple of weeks, no way.

          Sadly, some people, even unions, argue for the rotating shifts because they allow two of the six weeks to be a more-or-less regular shift with time for family, while half a year on the graveyard shift is ruinous to family responsibility.

          But iirc the correlation between industrial and motor accidents and the lack of daylight is well established.

          • al says:

            There are some cheap EEG devices. You can probably write an an app to monitor for sleep waves. The Engineer could wear this. If the Engineer falls asleep or enter micro-sleep, the device would sound an alarm to jar the train operator awake. If the operator is dead, it should deploy brakes. Add a heartbeat monitor and it could work in place of PTC.

  5. JohnDMuller says:

    Does anyone know what Amtrak has or is putting on their half of the Hudson division? ACSES, MTA style PTC, CSX style PTC?

    Do they change locomotives at Albany for all their various continuing services? I assume that the routes to Chicago, Toronto or Montreal might offer some variety of signal systems.

    How many different types of electronics can they reasonably put into a locomotive cab?

  6. Duke says:

    A $1 billion loan? Yeah, just what the MTA needs. More debt service.

    How about: if the feds are going to demand Metro-North install this system, the feds can pay for it. Otherwise it’s just extortion.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Sorry, but no. Safety is safety. The Feds aren’t paying for Metro-North’s pension obligations, union obligations, or ADA obligations (which it’s violating anyway). Metro-North and the LIRR have the ability to spend an affordable sum on improving both safety and capacity with better signaling, and are choosing to spend a similar sum on inferior albeit still safe technology. This should be welcomed: good enough signaling could, with very few compromises on service levels, eliminate the need for the more expensive LIRR Main Line third track. I don’t know if the system the LIRR and Metro-North are installing is good enough, and I suspect it isn’t, but it’s possible using existing off-the-shelf multi-vendor technology.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Neo-liberals have made it so you can’t discuss finances or economics without someone harping about debt, as if all debt were the same thing.

  7. Alex C says:

    What would be nice is if, and I know this is heresy, Amtrak and ALL the northeast commuter lines it interacts with just settle on one damn standard they all want to use. They’re trains, they ride on rails and sometimes have grade crossings. Other than Acela, they all generally stay in the same speed range. Just agree on one spec that will support everything and let the railroads install it. There’s a reason all of Europe agreed on one standard: it’s easier and less of a pain in the behind. Now we’re going to need to fit both Amtrak and LIRR/MNRR with two systems each at more cost.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Metro-North and the LIRR are sort of doing what you propose: they’re using an ACSES-compatible implementation. The problem is that it’s not an open standard like ERTMS, so each implementation is bespoke, which makes it more expensive relative to the capabilities provided.

      It’s still slightly cheaper per-km than Denmark’s ERTMS Level 2 – this while subway tunneling in New York is about ten times as expensive as in Copenhagen per-km – but the capabilities are much more restricted than in ERTMS. Presumably it’s a cheaper installation, with less infrastructure involved, which cancels out with the reduced number of vendors to produce only slightly lower costs.

      Also, it’s interesting that you say “other than Acela, they all generally stay in the same speed range.” The Acela tops at 240 km/h, but only in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and is restricted to 220 km/h south of New York. The Regional does 200 km/h, and the commuter trains usually top at 160 km/h under catenary. On many track segments, like the New Haven Line, all trains are subject to the same speed restrictions – the Acela can’t tilt on the New Haven Line, so the speed on curves is the same. So south of MBTA territory, the Regional is closer in speed to the Acela than to commuter trains.

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