Metro-North cans conductors for cheating on safety test
Metro-North fired a whole class of aspiring conductors over an investigation involving cheating on a safety-related test about the railroad's territory and infrastructure, Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan confirmed Wednesday.
A copy of the safety test was stolen by one of the conductor trainees from an instructor's bag, photographed with a smartphone, and then the photo was shared with his fellow classmates, Donovan said.
In all, nine probationary conductors were dismissed, and three other MTA employees in the class were also disqualified from being promoted to conductor, Donovan said. The cheating occurred about two months ago, he said, but it came to management's attention two weeks ago.
"They were dismissed and the information has been referred to the MTA Inspector General for investigation," Donovan said.
The nine probationary conductors were not yet full-fledged Metro-North employees, but were paid about $54,000 annually, about 70 percent of a fully certified conductor's salary during the 11-month training program, Donovan said.
They lacked union protection, given that Metro-North's labor agreements allow the railroad the right to terminate them within their first year of service without cause or explanation.
Calls to Michael Boxer, a spokesman for the Inspector General Barry Kluger, for comment on the ongoing investigation were not returned. Anthony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, which represents conductors declined comment on the dismissals.
Another engineer in training was dismissed this past winter when he was caught masturbating on a sleeping female passenger. He had started out as a coach cleaner, and been transferred up to the engineer training program about a year earlier. At the time, then-Metro-North president Howard Permut said, "We hold our employees to a high standard, and his alleged conduct is completely unacceptable."
The cheating scandal comes at a time when the railroad is seeking to overcome concerns about safety, after the Federal Railroad Administration found in March that Metro-North's "safety culture" suffered due to a singular focus on on-time performance. The finding was part of a report from the oversight agency's investigation into the railroad after a string of accidents and mishaps, most prominently the two major derailments, one in Bridgeport last May and the other in the Bronx, N.Y., in December, which killed four people.
Since taking over leadership of the railroad in February, Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti has emphasized that rigorous safety standards would take priority over on-time performance.
Among the FRA report's findings and recommendations was that Metro-North needed to reform its training department, especially its oversight of conductors and engineers. Many supervisors did not conduct annual face-to-face performance reviews with conductors and engineers, the report found, and the railroad was not doing adequate testing of compliance with operating rules.
Railroads must revamp their conductor qualification and certification programs by June 2015 under the Passenger Rail Investment and Safety Act of 2008, and that certified conductors are knowledgeable about the physical characteristics of the territory where they are operating. The FRA approved Metro-North's new conductor qualification and certification program in December of 2012, according to FRA spokesman Warren Flatau.
Federal regulations require conductors be recertified every three years, Donovan said, including testing on their familiarity with speed restrictions, station locations and curves, and other physical characteristics of the territories they might work in. The Bronx derailment happened when the conductor approached a 30-mph turn at 80-mph. Annual testing on Metro-North operating rules are required every year, Donovan said.