New review pinpoints MTA safety priorities

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Prompted by the Dec. 1 Metro-North train derailment on the Hudson Line, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has undergone a comprehensive review of operations by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The review found that Metro-North employees value time efficiency over protecting themselves and riders, and that the railroad had a “deficient safety culture” (The New York Times, “Report Finds Punctuality Trumps Safety at Metro-North,” 3.14.14).

“The past year has been a challenging one for Metro-North Railroad—for its 270,000 daily customers, for its 6,000 employees, for the taxpayers in New York and Connecticut who support its operations and for the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on a safe, efficient and well-run railroad to get to work, school and home,” said new MTA Metro-North Railroad President Joseph Giulietti in a released statement (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Metro-North putting safety first, seeking rider input,” 3.22.14).

The FRA report—known as Operation Deep Dive—was the most extensive passenger railroad investigation completed by the administration in recent history. The report noted, “The findings of Operation Deep Dive demonstrate that Metro-North has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure.” The railroad’s on-time performance last year, however, was its worst since the 1990s (The New York Times).

Giulietti echoed the result, saying, “As a new Federal Railroad Administration report makes clear, Metro-North’s focus on on-time performance came ahead of everything else—even safety” (The Poughkeepsie Journal).

“I spent 15 years at Metro-North at the start of my career, and returned to run the railroad a little more than a month ago,” Giulietti explained, “I found what the FRA found—the culture at Metro-North shifted over the years. Our challenge is to restore a culture of safety” (The Poughkeepsie Journal).

“As the new president of Metro-North, I have a clear message for all of them: safety must come first at Metro-North, and it will come first. Not train speed. Not on-time performance. Not adding new service. Safety,” he confirmed (The Poughkeepsie Journal).

“I’ve used Metro-North to get me home and back to Vassar…most breaks,” said Kristell Taylor ’16, a resident of Queens. “Honestly, I never saw any problems with safety until the derailment, which caused me to find another way to get here after Thanksgiving.”

“Now that I think about it, though, that might be because as long as the train was on time I didn’t really care about safety,” she said. “I grew up using subways and buses…I’m used to public transportation in New York and what you have to look out for in terms of staying safe. Most of the time when I think of safety with the MTA…I think that someone on the train or station could hurt me, not the actual…mode of transportation.”

Metro-North began changing its policies almost immediately after the derailment. The MTA installed new signal systems to enforce speed limits in certain locations; more speed limit signs in high-risk areas like curves; and they have lowered speed limits in some areas. These changes attribute to the longer commute times and lower on-time performance. The MTA plans to release a schedule that reflects the changes (The New York Times).

“I usually take Amtrak because I need to catch another train at Penn Station to get home on breaks,” said Samantha Smith ’16, “But the day of the derailment, I couldn’t get anywhere. I’ve never heard of this happening with an Amtrak train so…that railroad’s probably safer, but they probably don’t have the amount of people taking it as Metro-North does. The MTA has to deal with thousands of commuters daily, so I can see how Metro-North would have more problems.”

Smith continued, echoing sentiments of many of Metro-North passengers. “I knew Metro-North couldn’t be safe all the time…the derailment showed that but I didn’t know it was as bad as the report said,” she said.

“I’ve noticed recently that Metro-North is running slower—the times on the Hudson Line schedule changed, too,” said Taylor. “I had to go into the city for an appointment a few weeks ago and I thought I could make it back to Vassar in time for a class if I took a certain train—but I got back much later than I planned to. I can definitely see the difference…in timing since the derailment. Safety, not really, but I wasn’t really focusing on safety of Metro-North to begin with.”

Giulietti intends on changing many of the railroad’s policies in the near future in the hopes of improving safety measures. “There is good news: Metro-North is staffed by thousands of dedicated employees who are pained by the troubles of the last year, who work hard in difficult conditions and who want to restore the railroad to greatness,” he explained.

He went on, “We have embarked on a 100-day plan to put Metro-North on the right path, and we will update the FRA as we address problems” (The Poughkeepsie Journal).

In addition to changing schedules, the FRA encouraged Metro-North to update its training procedures and scrutinize the experience and ability of employees. According to the report, about half of workers have fewer than three years experience with the railroad. Managers also do not receive training on how to test for rail traffic controllers. In 2013, the MTA hired 700 new employees. This year, they project to hire 800 more (The New York Times).

“We have plenty of work ahead of us,” said Giulietti, “but I am confident Metro-North will earn back its reputation as a safe and reliable railroad for everyone it serves.” Giulietti and his senior staff plan on visiting several Metro-North stations in New York and Connecticut to meet with and hear feedback from commuters in upcoming weeks. He also encouraged those interested in their safety policies to read more about the 100-day plan at mta.info (The Poughkeepsie Journal).

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