March 28, 2014

Why your train may be a little late(r)

Chill out. That’s the message we’re getting from Metro-North in response to one of the most hazardous and tragic years for train travel in recent memory.

On May 17, an accident occurred on Metro-North’s New Haven Line when an eastbound Metro-North train of eight cars traveling 74 mph derailed and came to rest on an adjacent track. About 20 seconds later, a westbound Metro-North train on that adjacent track struck the derailed train. More than 50 people were hospitalized, some seriously injured. Rail operations were suspended and millions in property damage was incurred.

On May 28, a second accident occurred when a Metro-North train in West Haven, Conn., traveling 70 mph struck and killed a Metro-North maintenance employee. On July 18, a third accident occurred when a CSX Transportation freight train derailed while traveling on Metro-North’s system. No one was injured, but property damage was significant. A fourth accident took place on Dec. 1, when a Metro-North train of seven cars traveling south from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central Terminal derailed as it approached the Spuyten Duyvil Station. All cars derailed and the front cab came to rest close to the Harlem River. Four passengers were killed and more than 70 were injured.

These four serious accidents in 2013 drew the attention of the Federal Railroad Agency, which launched “Operation Deep Dive” on Dec. 13, an assessment and review of the agency’s safety procedures. The report, released to Congress earlier this month, concluded that tracks were not adequately maintained; railroad personnel lacked sufficient training; fatigue was a large element in the crashes; and there was insufficient training for inspection procedures. The report took Metro-North to task for its attention to on-time performance at the expense of safety.

The agency identified three overarching safety concerns that affect all facets of Metro-North: an overemphasis on punctual performance; an ineffective safety department and poor safety culture; and an inadequate training program.

At 81.8 million passengers, Metro-North’s annual east of Hudson ridership last year was the highest in the railroad’s history, an increase of 0.7 percent above calendar-adjusted 2012 levels. Metro-North typically sets its on-time performance at 97.8 percent; last year Metro-North brought trains in on time at 94.8 percent.

Already this year we have witnessed systemwide delays, most recently with the explosion of a gas line in East Harlem that disrupted service and diverted riders to the Bronx, an issue totally peripheral to Metro-North agency safety. However, this further slowed the on-time rate to 88 percent. The track work in the Bronx ends March 31.

In months to come, the railroad anticipates better on-time performance, said Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan on Wednesday, with a goal of 93 percent.

Every rider has a horror story: the train that stopped in Chappaqua and went no further; the evacuation of a train in some down county station; lack of space on shuttle buses; confusing instructions; and hordes of commuters trapped in Grand Central Station. Sometimes taking a deep breath and relaxing is the best — and perhaps the only — response to a long delay.

Riders may want to know whether future delays are a response to safety or rather due to system failures or inadequacies. How will the upward trend of commuter ridership affect performance? Metro-North has yet to announce the new schedule that will go into effect on May 1, but there will be no reduction in trains. We would like to see even more of them as mass transit promotes energy sustainability and clean air and is our best defense against gridlock. Whether routes will be spaced out differently on the timetable to help give more reliable, on-time goals remains to be seen when the schedule is released next month.

By the end of May, Metro-North is expected to address all aspects of the Deep Dive report. Let’s hope that in the meantime, schedule adjustments, safety improvements and an enhanced training culture at MTA help to provide a safer ride while maintaining the punctuality we have come to expect.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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Bedford Village

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Mount Kisco

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Cross River

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