The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) offered a damning review of the Metro-North Railroad's safety standards, saying that that the rail service values punctuality over security, a practice that lead to several recent deaths.
In a report titled "Operation Deep Dive," motivated by the Dec. 1 train derailment that killed four and injured more than 70 people, the FRA investigators write that Metro-North suffers from an "overemphasis of on-time performance," an "ineffective Safety Department and poor safety culture" and "an ineffective training program." In conclusion, the authors write:
The findings of Operation Deep Dive demonstrate that Metro-North has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of save operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure. This led to a deficient safety culture that has manifested itself in increased risk and reduced safety on Metro-North. This is a sever assessment, and it is intended as an urgent call to action to Metro-North's leadership as they work to develop a comprehensive plan to turn Metro-North into a model of safe railroad operations.
The evaluation described a disturbingly casual approach to safety. The New York Times reports:
The commuter railroad’s operations control center pressured workers “to rush when responding to signal failures,” and... workers struggled to secure the track time needed to perform essential repairs. Even policies as pedestrian as the use of cellphones have created dangers: Amid confusion about the rules, cellphone use is “commonplace and accepted” among track workers on the job.
New Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti responded to the report by saying that the service will take "aggressive actions to affirm that safety is the most important factor in railroad operations."
Metro-North implemented some emergency safety measures soon after the Dec. 1 crash, mostly concerned with making sure train operators don't exceed speed limits. But the effectiveness of the safety measures was called into question again after an employee was killed by a train this week while performing track maintenance on the Metro-North line in Manhattan, months after the safety tactics were in place. The report did not include this accident, but mentions four Metro-North accidents that resulted in five fatalities, more than one hundred injuries and significant damage to property last year.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer said that the report “confirmed our worst fears," adding that the most recent accident shows the rail service failed to commit to safe procedures even after the December accident.
Until 2013, Metro-North had maintained a stellar safety record. But some say this was mostly a lucky break for the company. NY Rep. Nita Lowey said “Sometimes people skirt the rules and they just have good luck,” adding, “It is likely that they’ve been cutting corners." It's also possible, according to the New York Times, that Metro-North had a bad year because 2013 marked thirty years of service for many longtime employees — which meant it was the year many of them were eligible for maximum pension payments. The mass retirements meant turnover was huge, and the ranks of inexperienced workers larger than usual.
Metro-North will have sixty days to submit a "plan to improve the Safety Department's mission and effectiveness," and one to "improve the training program," to the FRA. Its senior leadership must also immediately "prioritize safety above all else."