Archive for Metro-North
In the aftermath of last month’s fatal Metro-North derailment, MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast knew he had to act quickly and decisively to confront safety concerns. The commuter railroads were unlikely to be compliant a federal mandate to install positive train control by the end of 2015, and public perception was starting to weigh against Metro-North. To speed up the project, estimated to cost at least $670 million, the MTA has applied for a $1 billion loan from the feds, Ted Mann of the Wall Street Journal reports today.
Meanwhile, Mann also spoke with Prendergast about his previous experiences with safety concerns. As a young engineer in Chicago in the 1970s, the current MTA head had to face down similar problems after a pair of fatal CTA derailments. Prendergast is hoping to strike the right balance between a reliance on technology and the need for human decision-making. It’s not an easy balancing act, and time is not on the MTA’s side.
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.
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.
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.