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— by Julie Sneider, associate editor
In the month since a speeding MTA Metro-North Railroad train derailed on a sharp curve and killed four passengers, federal investigators and regulators have intensified their scrutiny of Metro-North; the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has cautioned railroads about train speed; and rail industry and political leaders have called on Congress to provide more funding for positive train control (PTC) implementation.
Metro-North already was under federal review for incidents that occurred earlier in 2013 by the time one of its trains derailed Dec. 1 after traveling 82 mph in a 30-mph curve near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx, N.Y. Four passengers died and dozens more were injured. According to local news media, the train engineer admitted to "nodding off" prior to the accident, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continued to investigate the cause as of press time.
The FRA began monitoring safety at Metro-North more closely in May 2013 after 75 people were hurt when a train derailed in Bridgeport, Conn. Also last year, a Metro-North track worker was hit and killed by a train in West Haven, Conn., and a freight train derailed on Metro-North tracks in the Bronx in July. In total, the accidents caused five deaths and injured 129 Metro-North employees and passengers, according to the FRA.
"The specific causes of these accidents may vary, but regardless of the reasons, four serious accidents in less than seven months is simply unacceptable," FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote to MTA Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Prendergast in a letter dated Dec. 3.
After the Dec. 1 incident, federal officials and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took numerous steps requiring the railroad to improve safety.
In an emergency order, the FRA directed Metro-North to take immediate measures to ensure train crews don't exceed speed limits; modify its existing signal system; and provide two employees to operate trains in areas where major speed restrictions are in place. The FRA also ordered MTA, which operates Metro-North, to implement a "safety stand-down" and confidential close-call reporting system.
In addition, the FRA on Dec. 16 kicked off "Operation Deep Dive," a 60-day, comprehensive review of Metro-North's compliance with federal regulations and the railroad's procedures, practices and safety culture.
Moreover, in a separate action, the FRA issued an industry-wide safety advisory on train-speed restrictions.
Meanwhile, the Dec. 1 Metro-North accident increased federal calls for railroads to implement PTC as soon as possible. NTSB officials believe PTC would have made a difference in the Metro-North derailment.
"At this time, the NTSB believes that if positive train control technology was installed on this line and train, it would have required the engineer to slow the train to an appropriate speed or stop the train in the event the engineer did not do so, likely preventing the derailment," board officials said in a prepared statement.
American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Amtrak and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and several political leaders also called on Congress to increase funding for PTC implementation. In an opinion article published Dec. 16 in USA Today, Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Boardman wrote that Congress, the FRA and the rail industry need to "re-double" their efforts to quickly implement PTC.