Archive for Metro-North
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.
As news about Sunday’s tragic Metro-North derailment spread throughout the day, I couldn’t help but think how worse it could have been. That’s small consolation to the families of Donna L. Smith, James G. Lovell, James M. Ferrari, and Ahn Kisook. They were the first four passenger fatalities in Metro-North history. For them, December 1 will be a day that long haunts them.
But for everyone else who could have been on an early morning train heading down the Hudson Line to Grand Central, the derailment was a hair’s breadth away from being much, much worse. Because it was early on a Sunday morning, only around 120 people were on board, a much smaller crowd than during a Monday. Furthermore, when the train jumped the tracks, the lead car stopped just short of the Harlem River. A few more feet would have sent that car plunging into the frigid, rough waters of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek.
Otherwise, for those people whose lives were taken earlier today, nothing about Sunday was lucky. For many, the accident will create the perception of a safety problem with rail travel, and for those on board, the event will be a life-defining day. Two New York Times reporters spoke with survivors, and the tales they tell are horrific. Trees tore through windows as the cars came to rest in marshy bogs near a rivera. Riders were trapped as rescue workers had to stabilize train cars and prevent further injuries. It was a nightmare.
Furthermore, a statement released by the Metro-North Railroad Commuters Council drives home the perception problems. Noting the three earlier incidents, the rider advocates called for a full accounting of Sunday’s accident. “The riders whom we represent must be assured they are safe when they travel on a Metro-North train, but their confidence in the Railroad has been shaken. Metro-North management must act decisively to ensure that incidents like those that the failures that have occurred this year do not occur again,” MNRCC Chair Randolph Glucksman said.
So what happened? Right now, National Transportation Safety Board inspectors have the train’s black box and are studying records, but from reports from the crash, a problem with the brakes seems the most likely explanation. A train that could have been going as high as 70 on a straight-away hit a steep curve prior to the Spuyten Duyvil station, and the brakes failed. Earlier in the day on Sunday, various reports suggested that the brakes failed, but evening stories hedged. The Times explains:
It was not clear how fast the Metro-North train was going. But an official from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said the train operator had reported that the train was going into the turn too fast and that he had performed an emergency braking maneuver. The operator told the first rescuers to reach the scene that he had “dumped” the brakes, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Railroad experts said that dumping the brakes is a last-resort move that has the effect of slamming on the emergency brakes on all the cars of a train at once. It is usually done to avert a collision with another train or a car at a grade-level crossing.
Officials opened an investigation but cautioned that it would take time to piece together the evidence and pinpoint a possible cause. The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the site with instructions to inspect the overturned cars and interpret information from the train’s “event recorders,” devices that are somewhat similar to the flight recorders on airplanes. The Federal Railroad Administration also dispatched a team of investigators.
Earl F. Weener of the transportation safety board said at a news conference with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that investigators had yet to interview the operator of the train, who was among those injured. A spokeswoman for Metro-North said the engineer, identified as William Rockefeller, had about 14 years’ experience with the line. There were also three conductors on the train. “Our mission is to not just understand what happened but why it happened, with the intent of preventing it from happening again,” Mr. Weener said.
For Metro-North, this is another in a line of bad incidents this year. A derailment and a collision in Connecticut led to days of delays, and early draft of The Times report pointed a finger at brain drain. “The recent episodes have occurred at a particularly trying time for the railroad,” a draft of the story, since revised, said. “The agency, brought under the auspices of the transportation authority in 1983, has endured a spate of departures that have left several positions either vacant or filled by less experienced employees. Retirements of high-level employees have been common, officials said, because retirees can receive maximum pension payments after 30 years of service.”
We’ll know more in the coming days and weeks, but for now, the immediate concerns are logistics. Monday marks the first full day of work since prior to Thanksgiving, and the Hudson Line is out of commission for a few days. The MTA has received the go-ahead from the NTSB to clean up and repair, but service for Monday morning will be severely impacted.
Starting at 5 a.m. on Monday, the MTA will provide train service to Yonkers and a shuttle bus to the 242nd St. 1 train station. Transit will operate two additional peak-hour 1 trains, but those locals will be slow and crowded into Manhattan. Hudson Line tickets will be cross-honored on the subway, on Harlem Line trains and a the Port Jervis station. For 26,000 people, the ride into New York will be tough. For four people, that ride will never happen again, and the answers will soon be forthcoming.
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.
So sayeth the MTA:
“Full service to the MTA Metro-North Railroad New Haven Line will be restored Monday morning, assuming the new substation which received Con Edison power today is found reliable during our testing over the weekend.”
Meanwhile, Metro-North released additional information concerning the credit process today. Although the amounts have not yet been determined, New Haven Line riders will weekly or monthly passes that were valid during the outage can begin to apply for credit beginning October 9 or October 20, respectively. Customers may apply for this credit until March 31, 2014, and the agency will waive the customary $10 processing fee. The credit will be available at select New Haven Line stations and in Grand Central. Mail & Ride customers will receive the credit automatically.
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.