Laid end-to-end, the tracks of the New York City subway system total more than enough to extend to Chicago. Every day, over 8000 subway trains pass through these tracks, and the system never shuts down. Thus, it’s a challenge for the MTA to keep everything in working order, and it requires diligence and an attention to detail to ensure nothing that could cause injuries or cost passenger lives is amiss. In May, that process broke down, and now the MTA is seeking to hold four workers accountable.
As you may recall, back in May, a Manhattan-bound F train derailed in Queens, snarling train traffic through the area for a few days. While no one was seriously injured, a fully train had to be evacuated, and it was the MTA’s first major subway derailment in some time. (The MTA’s derailment rate remains well below national average.) Still, the agency, as it should, takes these investigations seriously, and on Friday, Transit released a report fingering deficiencies in the track-inspection process. Four workers, the agency, said, will be disciplined for their failures.
“Nothing is more important than providing the safest transportation possible for our customers and employees, so determining the cause of this derailment was a top priority for us,” New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco said in a statement. “We immediately took corrective action to ensure we always focus on identifying and correcting track defects. This will minimize the risk of future derailments.”
The full report is available here as a PDF. The essence of it is that a series of minor defects that should have been caught by track inspection personnel and subsequently corrected were missed. The train operator, signal system, rolling stock and rail manufacturers were deemed to escape responsibility for the incident, but three Maintenance Supervisors and a Track Inspector are in the MTA’s crosshairs.
Here’s how the MTA summarized the findings:
New York City Transit’s Office of System Safety reviewed video data from prior automated inspections where the derailment occurred. The videos showed that a metal plate and fasteners under the rail had been broken for at least one year before the derailment but were not replaced. The wooden tie under that plate was also in poor condition. Maintenance records also showed that in the eleven months before the derailment, two other broken rails had been reported and replaced in the same 19-foot, 6-inch section of rail.
The combination of the broken plate, broken fasteners and deteriorated tie should have been prioritized for repairs. The report concludes that Division of Track personnel did not identify, document and correct the track defect at that location, either during regular inspections or when the two prior broken rails were replaced. They also did not adequately investigate the underlying causes of the broken rails.
Additionally, the report found that the top of the rail that broke was installed with a 1/8-inch vertical mismatch where the new rail met the slightly worn existing rail. In addition, the metal joint bars used to fasten the two rails together were reused, and one of them had a sharp edge where the top of the joint bar met the underside of the rail head. In addition, one of the six bolts required to secure the joint bar was not present.
To address these issues, the MTA has instituted new procedures regarding broken rails. This includes replacing broken plates and fasteners as soon as possible, and personnel will spend more time inspecting corridors with the highest number of broken rails. The agency will deploy ultrasonic inspection cars, and Division of Track is working to replace bolted joints with continuously welded rail. This should also allow trains to run faster through these corridors. All in all, it’s hard work to inspect hundreds of miles of underground track with trains constantly running over them, but as the MTA is keen to admit, that’s ultimately no excuse.