There are no blue ribbons for Metro-North

The long awaited MTA “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts has issued its report on Metro-North and its sister railroads, and it isn’t pretty.

Their 50-page report confirms much of what we already knew: that the railroad placed too much emphasis on “on time performance” instead of safety, that there were serious repair issues unattended to for months, and that there has been an enormous “brain drain” of experienced railroad employees who have opted for retirement after 30 years.

All of those problems could have been prevented if MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast had been doing his job, which he wasn’t. That is surprising, given his almost 40 years in the industry. Remember, he was selected as chairman by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just a month before the Bridgeport crash, after successfully turning around the New York City subway system. Plus he had also spent years at the Long Island Railroad.

But the panel’s report was especially critical of Prendergast for running his three railroads (MNRR, LIRR, NYC subways) as silos and not having them communicate with each other on best practices. If the NYC subways had a cool parts-inventory system, MNRR never knew about it. The “safety culture” at the LIRR may have been great, but it was never shared with MNRR.

But, according to the panel, the problems were far deeper than just that:

Tension: The panel said there is a “tension” between the railroad workers who maintain the tracks and signals and their colleagues who run the trains. The track workers aren’t given enough time to do their job. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, “A house (or railroad) divided cannot stand.”

Tools: Compared to the LIRR and NYC subway, Metro-North is in the dark ages of technology. Track inspection reports are still done on paper. We don’t have state-of-the-art track inspection cars or autonomous bridge monitoring systems. Much of the maintenance work is done manually instead of using machines.

Tidiness: The panel even suggests the railroad clean up all the scrap and debris along the tracks to prevent tripping hazards.

Top-down: Did they have to suggest this: “Periodically have management walk with track inspectors to reinforce (the crucial nature of this work)?”

Time: The panel suggests MTA reopen union contracts to do track and signal maintenance work overnight when there’s lots of time and fewer trains. Japan’s Shinkansen high speed rail has gone 50 years without a track fatality thanks to inspections of every mile of tracks every night.

Transparency: After years of denying there were any safety problems, the recent derailments and deaths have forced MNRR to face its neglect of safety. The panel also suggests increased “customer engagement” on this topic with town halls, media ops and direct customer communications.

So, kudos to the panel of industry experts and thank you for a year of hard work. Now it’s up to the MTA and Metro-North to take the list of 29 recommendations to heart and make our trains on time and safe.

 

Jim Cameron is a longtime commuter and founder of the Commuter Action Group. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You may reach him at [email protected]

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