Archive for Metro-North
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.
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.
There’s something very dramatic and unsettling about seeing a passenger rail train, once filled with people, lying on its side scattered about its tracks and the woods nearby. It’s wrong for a train to be off its track, and it’s newsworthy when one jumps the rails. This past Sunday’s Metro-North derailment provided us with a tragic reminder of the worst that can happen when a train derails, particularly one traveling at excessive speeds.
In the aftermath of the incident, safety takes second stage. Politicians throughout the region issued calls for comprehensive studies and sounded alarm bells. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy penned a letter to the MTA. “I am asking MTA/Metro-North to develop an action plan that addresses communication, safety reporting, inspection and maintenance programs, remedial short term action plans, and longer term capital investment programs to upgrade the infrastructure,” he wrote. Change needs to happen now.
New York’s junior senator Kirsten Gillibrand issued a similar call with particularly strident language. She wrote a letter to Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo expressing “deep concern over the recent derailment of a Metro-North commuter train in the Bronx, and for the safety of New Yorkers and others who use the Metro-North railroad every day.”
“Yesterday’s accident is the latest in a long list of accidents on MTA’s system, and comes on the heels of a freight train derailment near the same turn in July… This is simply unacceptable,” she wrote. “I renew my call for an immediate comprehensive safety evaluation of the MTA system and procedures to ensure that we do not experience a similar tragedy in the future. Additionally, I request that you provide my office with an overview of any steps that have been taken by the FRA to address MTA commuter rail safety.”
What Gillibrand and Malloy are saying has some truth to it, but there’s also some kneejerk fearmongering. Meanwhile, the incident has created the perception of safety problems. One rider said to The Times on Sunday, “You think you’re safe on the train. I know I’m going to be taking a car for a while.”
It’s that reaction that the coverage over the last few days and the statements made by politicians has fed. Sunday’s derailment is a terrible story with a tragic ending for four riders and horrific injuries to many others. These four fatalities though were the first passenger deaths in Metro-North’s 31-year history. WNYC crunched the numbers and found that, since 1993, for every 1 billion train passengers, seven have died. In 2012 alone, 33,561 Americans died in traffic incidents. The comparable motor vehicle death rate is 108,000 for every 1 billion drivers.
Now, I’m not going to further minimize what happened Sunday. Fatalities or not, Metro-North’s safety record, as the FRA noted on Tuesday, has been abysmal of late, and the technology exists to ensure that no one — zero people — dies on in a crash derailment due to excessive speeds. The MTA though hasn’t fully funded the positive train control program and may not have it ready until 2019. That we can build a $4.5 billion subway stop but can’t scrounge up a quarter of that to save lives speaks volumes about our priorities in non-emergency situations. But I digress. (In an excellent post, Patrick at The LIRR Today delves into this issue and more.)
I’d like to know from politicians where the general outrage is when seven pedestrians die in car crashes as they have over the last week in New York City. I’d like to know why it’s a struggle to fund mass transit until something calamitous happens and dramatic photos — of flooded stations, of derailed trains — are splashed across front pages. Investing in transit is a commitment, but it’s well worth it in added mobility and, yes, saved lives. Metro-North needs to improve its safety record, and it likely has to overcome a brain drain. But it needs support from start to finish and not just at the end.
Metro-North will restore service to the Hudson Line tomorrow morning, just three days after Sunday’s derailment, and the agency plans to run 98 percent of its normal daily service, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press release. Crews have been rebuilding 800 feet of track near Spuyten Duyvil, but full service will not be restored for a few days as the outer track was completely destroyed by the derailment.
According to the MTA, trains will single track through the area as rebuilding continues. In addition to the destruction of the outer track, the middle track sustained serious damage as well. As such, six morning trains will be reduced to three, but the Hudson Line will run the rest of its 172-train schedule. Riders are warned to expect delays of 10-15 minutes, a far cry from the hour-long diversions many had been experiencing this week.
“Thanks to an extraordinary effort and around the clock work, over 98% of service will be restored for Hudson Line commuters in time for tomorrow morning’s rush hour,” Governor Cuomo said. “As the NTSB continues its investigation of the derailment on Sunday morning, the MTA is fully cooperating to ensure we find out exactly what caused this horrific incident that took the lives of four individuals and injured many others. The families of those we lost and those still recovering continue to be in our thoughts and prayers.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, meanwhile, continued its investigation today. The Board announced that it did not appear as though faulty brakes were the culprit as the brakes showed no degradation or anomalies at previous stops. Additionally, alcohol testing on the engineer and other on-board employees came back clean while drug test results are still pending. The engineer’s work schedule showed no indication that he had been overworked or otherwise off calendar, and interviews with on-board personnel are ongoing.
As more news breaks concerning Sunday’s fatal Metro-North derailment, it’s looking more and more likely that human error, rather than a train malfunction, was to blame. According to multiple reports this morning, William Rockefeller, the train’s engineer, either “zoned out” or momentarily lost consciousness as his train sped into a sharp curve at over 80 miles per hour. This development contradicts earlier reports from Sunday that the brakes failed.
The Post led with their story on the front page this morning, and it has since been picked up by DNA Info, The Daily News, and The Wall Street Journal. One source told the News that Rockefeller had no memory of the crash while another compared the engineer’s state of mind to a day dream.
“I think anybody who’s ever driven a car and sort of gotten to that place where you’re not really conscious, and then you snap yourself out of it, that’s in effect what happened,” The Journal’s source said. “That is exactly how Billy described it.”
The various reports diverge a bit in the details. The Post says Rockefeller “zoned out” and was awoken by a warning whistle that the train was going too fast. DNA Info says that the “rumbling of the train roaring through the head of the curve awakened Rockefeller.” Either way, the pendulum is swinging toward some form of inattentiveness by the engineer and human error.
We won’t know the official ruling until the National Transportation Safety Board issues its findings, and Rockefeller has unsurprisingly lawyered up. But questions are already swirling surrounding the role technology could have played in preventing this incident. A positive train control system, in the planning and funding stages, could have automatically slowed down the train in Rockefeller’s moment of distraction. Ted Mann summarizes:
Rail safety experts said that advanced train control systems would likely have prevented the accident if the derailment was a result of speeding. Systems to automatically slow or stop trains before collisions or derailments can occur are in various stages of development on commuter rail networks across the country, thanks to a federal law that requires they be installed by 2015. But many railroads, including Metro-North, say they can’t meet that deadline, citing technical complexity of the systems, lack of radio spectrum, and other pressing needs for scarce funding.
I’ll have more on railroad safety lately. For now, the latest reports indicate that PTC may not be ready until 2019, but area politicians are starting to make some noises that they aren’t happy. Needless to say, the pressure will now be on the MTA to bring some positive train control system to its railroads sooner rather than later
Following the NTSB reports of an 82-mph speed just prior to derailment and a video of the crash’s aftermath, the MTA has released its own B-Roll of the recovery efforts. The agency had to re-rail the cars and move them out. Now, crews have to repair 800 feet of damaged rail before running test trains and restoring service.
In the meantime, bus service between Yonkers and the 1 line will continue on Tuesday. Metro-North service will operate between Poughkeepsie and Yonkers with shuttle buses to the Van Cortlandt Park-242nd St. station. Hudson Line tickets will again be cross-honored on the Harlem and New Haven Lines, and NJ Transit will take Harlem Line takes on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines. There is still no word yet when full service will be restored.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the last FASTRACK of the year hits the F line. Trains will be running on the A between West 4th and Jay St. with shuttle buses providing service between Jay and York Sts. in Brooklyn and between East Broadway and Broadway/Lafayette. This is the first FASTRACK along this stretch of the tunnels, and it’s the last FASTRACK of the year. We don’t yet know what next year’s treatments will be, but I assume this program will continue.
The Metro-North train that derailed yesterday morning was traveling at speeds of 82 miles per hour as it entered the Spuyten Duyvil curve, the National Transportation Safety Board just announced. Speed limits on the curve are just 30 miles per hour, and the speed limit on the straightaway north of the curve is 70. The NTSB noted that they do not yet know if human error or mechanical malfunction caused the deadly incident.
The NTSB noted that six seconds prior to the train coming to a stop, the throttle went to idle, and one second later, break pressure dropped to zero. “We do not yet know the initiating event for the throttle going to idle or the brake pressure dropping to 0 psi,” the agency said in a statement.
As of now, the NTSB has noted that there were no prior problems with the brakes, and the safety investigators will continue interviews with the engineer and three other crew members. The rail cars and locomotive have been removed to a secure location for further study, and the tracks have been turned back over to Metro-North. Yet, extensive service changes remain in place for the afternoon commute and morning rush. I’ll have more as this story develops.
Four passengers have died and over 60 others are injured this morning after a Grand Central-bound Hudson Line Metro-North train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. The train had left Poughkeepsie at 5:54 and was not scheduled to stop at Spuyten Duyvil. Yet, approximately 100 yards north of the station, five of the seven cars jumped the tracks. The lead car stopped just short of the Harlem River, and other cars were on their sides.
The MTA does not know what caused the derailment, and the agency will conduct “a detailed investigation,” according to a spokesman. According to NBC New York, the curve north of the Spuyten Duyvil station is a “slow-speed area,” but one eyewitness who rides that route regularly told NBC’s Michael Gargiulo that the train was moving fast. MTA officials said they will consult the train’s black box for speed records as part of the investigation.
For now, all Metro-North service on the Hudson Line is suspended between Tarrytown and Grand Central, and Amtrak’s Empire Line Service between New York City and Albany has been suspended as well. Metro-North will be providing shuttle bus service between White Plains and Tarrytown beginning at 11 a.m., and the Harlem Line will cross-honor Hudson Line tickets. There is no current timetable for service restoration.
I’ll have more as this story develops. It has not been a good year for Metro-North as this is the second passenger train derailment in six months. The previous incident was not a fatal one.
The MTA Board voted this afternoon to approve some form of ticket credit for riders of Metro-North’s New Haven Line who hold weekly or monthly tickets valid during the current power outage. The railroad has not yet determined how the credit will be structured or when it will be available, but the agency plans to release further information later this week. All in all, the credit is expected to cost the MTA approximately $2 million per week in lost revenue, and it is likely that the agency will seek to recoup costs from Con Edison.
“Because of the unprecedented magnitude and duration of this disruption, the MTA Board has concluded that a credit for our customers is simply the right thing to do,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast said in a statement. “I want to thank my fellow board members for taking swift action to address this situation while we work to support Con Edison in restoring full power to the line.”
Metro-North, meanwhile, is adding five more peak-hour trains tomorrow, bringing service back to about 65 percent of normal. In my view, that means any credit for tomorrow should top out at 35 percent of the pro-rated value of a ticket. During a press conference this afternoon, MTA officials cautioned that the refund should not set a precedent for future service disruptions, and some board members rightly argued that Metrocard holders should have received a similar credit for Sandy-related outages last year. In the poll I conducted earlier today, those voting for some form of refund eked out a 51-49 win over those voting against any refund.
Meanwhile, for those wondering what to do with their newfound riches sure to total ones or perhaps tens of dollars, why not check out the new Shake Shack in Grand Central Terminal which is opening on Saturday? The burger joint replaces Zocalo and will be forking over rent of around half a million per year for the next ten years with the MTA owed 8 percent of gross sales over a certain threshold amount.
Later this afternoon, the MTA Board will host an emergency meeting to consider the question of refunds for New Haven Line Metro-North riders. The move comes after Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy called upon the MTA to expedite a refund process for riders facing slower and less frequent service as Con Ed continues to repair the damaged feeder cable. With repairs unlikely to wrap before next week, regular riders will have suffered through nearly two weeks of delays.
“Approving a refund to commuters isn’t just the right thing to do,” Mallooy said in a statement yesterday, “it’s what they need to do. It’s incumbent on the MTA and ConEd to deal with this problem and get it fixed, and it’s critical that Connecticut residents get reimbursed as quickly as possible.”
So here’s my question: Is it the right thing to do? Is it that important? I keep thinking back to similar calls in the aftermath of Sandy when subway service was not just slightly worse but shut down completely for days. Metrocard users received no such refund or time extension. Why is Metro-North any different?
On the one hand, it’s far easier to process Metro-North refunds. Cards run for full calendar months or weeks, and the MTA can easily add more time. Plus, this was not an act of nature; in fact, it sounds as though Con Ed will carry the blame for the incident. The MTA should get reimbursed for any unplanned expenses incurred during the outage, making a refund as easy as spending someone else’s money.
That said, New Haven Line service hasn’t been non-existent in the intervening week and a half. Trains have run; the Harlem Line has cross-honored fares. The MTA is doing what it can to ease travel woes, and if Metrocard users couldn’t get refunds during Sandy when insurance would have covered some of the costs, why should suburban riders now?
We’ll know more at around 4 p.m. when MTA officials address the media, but I’m curious to see the results of this poll.