When the MTA is in crisis mode, it has shown the ability to respond quickly and efficiently to address issues. For an agency not known for finishing projects on time, adapting new technologies within any reasonable timeframe or generally seeing through innovation, time and again, the MTA tackles major problems better than just about any other governmental agency. Most subway service was restored less than a week after Sandy in 2012, and, more recently, Metro-North and the LIRR instituted sweeping safety improvements barely a week after the first crash with passenger fatalities in Metro-North history.
For this, the MTA deserves some praise. The agency has learned how to make the most out of potentially catastrophic scenarios and has become adept at responding. But the speed with which the MTA addressed some major underlying safety concerns over the past few weeks has raised some eyebrows. Why did it take a fatal crash to implement basic safety upgrades? If these problems were so easy to fix, why weren’t they implemented years ago?
Since a Metro-North Railroad train derailed in the Bronx on Dec. 1, killing four people and injuring more than 70, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has not had to look far for safety remedies that might have prevented the crash. Recently ordered improvements, delivered in response to the derailment, have been borrowed from Metro-North’s sister agency, the Long Island Rail Road, and at times from the Metro-North system itself.
Changes significant enough to have thwarted the crash, according to rail experts, were simple enough to have been completed within days. Others are so straightforward that some of the authority’s board members assumed they had been in place for years. While the authority and federal investigators have cautioned that a full accounting of the derailment is not yet complete, many transit officials have arrived at a troubling conclusion since the crash: The authority could have — and in many cases should have — installed a series of protections long before the train’s operator apparently became dazed at the controls early that Sunday morning, racing into a sharp curve at nearly three times the allowable speed…
Asked why broader changes to Metro-North’s signal system were not made sooner — particularly at well-known curves like the one at Spuyten Duyvil — Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for the authority, said it was the job responsibility of train operators to “know all the physical characteristics, including the speed limits” in all areas where they were qualified to work. For more than 30 years, she said, “that system worked fine,” with no accident-related passenger fatalities since Metro-North was created in 1983. The recent changes were “a result of the intense introspection currently underway at Metro-North,” she said.
The bulk of Flegenheimer’s explores the reactions to the MTA’s changes. Board members were surprised by the speed at which Metro-North implemented its fixes and were floored to find out that many were rooted in common sense and parallel best-practices in place at the Long Island Rail Road. “The fact that some of the stuff was done in the rebuilding of track that occurred over a couple of days, it does lead you to believe that it could have been done earlier,” William Henderson, head of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said.
Other MTA Board members wondered if an intense focus on on-time performance was to blame while others wondered if the federal government’s singular approach to safety via a federally mandated positive train control system forced the MTA to examine safety issues through a single-lens approach. “I think it may have slowed down the process, actually,” Ira Greenberg said to The Times. “Why put in a system on top of a system that does virtually the same thing, when you can wait for the better one?”
Ultimately, though, the MTA’s response to the crash and the response to the response brings up a tried-and-true problem with the agency — and really any government agency of its size and breadth. The MTA has been essentially reactive for decades now as it has struggled to overcome decades of deferred maintenance and disinvestment in the system. It is not a proactive leader in the global field of transit, and it may never get there. From an area as basic as the fare payment technology to a realm as important as safety, the MTA has not been ahead of the curve, and two weeks ago, it proved quite costly indeed.