Metro-North in crisis?

FI-Talking-Transportation-Jim-CameronIs it safe to ride Metro-North?

I’ve been asked that question by reporters and commuters alike dozens of times in recent weeks. I’ll get to my answer in a moment, after some background first.

Days ago the National Transportation Safety Review Board released its initial report on the cause of the May 17 derailment and subsequent collision of two trains, and seemed to fault the railroad, not just our aging tracks. The federal safety agency says that just two days before the accident, a Metro-North inspection identified a problem at the site of the derailment, pointing to an insulated joint connecting two sections of track that had insufficient ballast (the large gravel supporting the ties). As trains rolled over the joint, the track moved up and down, straining the joint.

Metro-North admits its track crews found the problem but says that they didn’t think it serious enough to close the track or issue a “slow order.” The question is, why?

Shouldn’t the railroad always err on the side of safety? Was the weak spot slated for repairs? If so, when?

Days later, there was another tragedy. A Metro-North track worker was struck by an oncoming train near West Haven. This accident seems to have been caused by human error. A rookie in traffic control reportedly cleared signals for the work area, sending the train at full speed into the area workers thought was shut to traffic. Metro-North President Howard Permut called the accident “the worst … in Metro-North’s history.”

Metro-North workers and managers are not stupid. They are highly trained and want to run a world class railroad that’s safe and on time. But they are only human and are under tremendous pressure, exacerbated by a serious loss of experienced staff.

Since the first of the year, 34 managers have retired, including the senior vice president of operations, the senior construction engineer, the chief training officer and the assistant director of track projects. Many engineers, conductors and track workers have also retired, because after 30 years on the job they are eligible to leave with full pension benefits.

“Right now, this is a tinderbox,” Anthony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees (ACRE) told the New York Daily News.

“The loss of thousands of years of experience is something we have all warned about for years,” Bottalico said in a letter to Permut. “Our employees and managers tell me they see a railroad in dysfunction, a railroad more concerned with budgets and long meetings and (with) no attention to actual management of the operations.”

According to a report in the New York Post, the Federal Transit Administration is so concerned it has twice warned Metro-North’s parent, the MTA, that it needs to bring in experienced managers for mega-projects like the Second Avenue subway. Morale is down even among remaining managers who haven’t seen a pay hike in years.

The railroad knew this was coming. But has it done enough to promote from within or bring in fresh talent from other railroads? And who wants to go from being an engineer (earning $175,000) into management and take a pay cut?

Even with new hires, there are problems. Chris Silvera, the head of the track workers union, told Newsday, “We are a very young work force, a very inexperienced work force. We’re used to having people with 15, 16 years of experience doing these jobs. We’re not able to do that anymore. When you’ve got all rookies on the team you have to have leadership.”

So, is it safe to ride Metro-North? Yes, I think it is and I’m riding it.

Since these two accidents, vigilance has been redoubled. I’m sure everyone on the railroad is thinking “safety” first and foremost, as they should.

So the next time your train is delayed a few minutes or seems to be running slow, don’t complain. It’s probably for a good reason … keeping you, your fellow passengers and the folks that work 24 x 7 to run the busiest commuter railroad in the U.S. safe.

 

Jim Cameron has been a commuter for 22 years. He is chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You may reach him at [email protected] or Trainweb.org/ct.

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