Metro-North admits to maintenance lag
Metro-North officials admit to maintenance backlog in New Haven Line mishap probe
WASHINGTON -- A Metro-North railroad official admitted Wednesday that maintenance on the line is years behind schedule, including in the Bridgeport area, where a passenger train derailed in May, causing a disastrous collision with another train.
At a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on two May accidents on the New Haven Line, Metro-North Chief Engineer Robert Puciloski said a five-year cycle of maintenance had not been conducted in the area of the collision since 2005.
"I cannot give you an answer as to how we got so far behind," he said.
But the board's chairwoman, saying the investigations could result in improved rail safety across the country, praised Metro-North for admitting its shortcomings and taking steps to improve.
"We've had excellent information coming out about the circumstances that led up to this accident," said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, speaking of the May 17 collision which injured 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor. "Metro-North is being very forthcoming about some of the areas where they needed to make (improvements) and in fact, they are making those improvements now."
Eleven days after the collision, on May 28, track foreman Robert Luden was killed by a train in West Haven. Hersman said after that accident, the NTSB issued an urgent recommendation to Metro-North to use shunting equipment as a safety precaution. The railroad said in June it would begin to do so.
"We know that nothing can replace your loved one," Hersman said to Luden's family. "And our thoughts are with those who suffered injuries in the Bridgeport accident. Our goal is that throughout our investigation and our findings and recommendations we can prevent similar tragedies."
A cracked track joint that had recently been worked on near the derailment was the subject of much discussion Wednesday. Before the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, "The evidence points overwhelmingly to a failing in the joints that tied together two tracks, causing the derailment."
Puciloski said the line has added a fifth welding crew to repair track joints since the collision. He said both staffing and frequency of inspections have been increased.
"That's good news for the people who ride Metro-North," Hersman said. "Changes are being made."
She added, "This is heavily traveled track ... with a lot of trains, (with) challenges for the inspectors to get out, get track time, (and) do all of the work that needs to be done."
Puciloski added that the railroad is "losing a lot of experience ... the people who know how to weld to this level are retiring."
Such maintenance issues are "a national problem," Blumenthal said. "Metro-North is just the most visible and recent of the evidence that much more substantial investment is needed, but even more than the dollars, there need to be standards and metrics for making sure those dollars are well-spent."
But Blumenthal stressed that there was no substitute for making a "massive" investment in rail infrastructure improvements.
"The public's trust and confidence in our railroads really is at stake," he said. "The cascading series of near-disasters or breakdowns in service is undermining trust."
In the second half of Wednesday's hearing, the focus shifted onto the safety and design of the Kawasaki-built M8 rail cars.
Despite the number of injuries in the collision of the two trains May 17, David Tyrell of the Department of Transportation's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center stated that the cars performed relatively well under the circumstances. Tyrell credited the front car's design for limiting damage.
Tyrell also said while the safety of the car could be improved, it would not be without trade-offs. Further improvements on this model would have required sacrifices such as smaller car interiors that would reduce the number of passengers that could fit on each train.
Yoichiro Araki, a representative of Kawasaki -- which was recently commissioned to build the next generation of Metro-North cars -- said information from this accident would be used in the design process of the next model to improve safety.
"We've got the industry here, we've got the regulator, we've got the manufacturers. ... What we hope to learn in these two days of hearings is really to raise the bar on safety for the entire industry," Hersman said.
She added that Metro-North has "been making these changes since the accidents occurred. That's very important, because the most critical thing is that an organization is willing to learn. ... And Metro-North is clearly demonstrating that, through the information that they are providing today."
The hearing continues Thursday, and is scheduled to focus primarily on the West Haven accident, delving into issues including worker safety, risk management, and the strengthening of organizational safety cultures.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.