FRA's action plan for improving safety at Metro-North commuter railroad

FRA’s Action Plan for Improving Safety at Metro-North Commuter Railroad

The FRA has acted aggressively to close any safety gaps and ensure the safe operation of Metro-North Commuter Railroad. On May 17, 2013, after a Metro-North passenger train accident in Bridgeport, Conn., FRA increased its inspections and audits of the commuter railroad’s practices and compliance with Federal regulations. But on December 3, after the commuter railroad experienced its fourth accident in seventh months, FRA again increased its oversight. 

As a first step, FRA communicated with Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates Metro-North, to encourage a safety stand-down with all employees and implement a confidential close call reporting system (C3RS) to strengthen safety.

FRA has since issued Emergency Order (No. 29), requiring Metro-North to take specific, immediate actions to improve safety, as well as a Safety Advisory to help ensure railroads industry-wide adhere to Federal regulations regarding maximum authorized train speed limits. Lastly, on December 12, 2013, FRA announced the launch of Operation Deep Dive, a 60-day comprehensive safety assessment of Metro-North.

These complementary actions – intended to ensure both immediate and long-term improvements to the overall safety of Metro-North – are summarized in greater detail below.

December 3, 2013 Letter – Safety Stand-Down

As a first step in response to the Metro-North train derailment in the Bronx, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) stating that “immediate corrective action is necessary” in response to a series of accidents that resulted in five deaths and approximately 129 injuries to employees and customers.

“Not only have some of these incidents had tragic and catastrophic consequences,” Administrator Szabo wrote, “they have also eroded the public’s confidence in the safety of the railroad transportation system, and they detract from employees’ focus and morale as they continue to perform safety-critical duties.” 

The letter expressed USDOT’s and FRA’s support for Governor Cuomo’s directive that MTA hold a safety stand-down with all employees on its Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road properties as a visible first step to restoring public and employee confidence in the MTA transportation system. The letter also recommended immediately implementing a confidential close call reporting system (C3RS) to identify precursors to significant safety issues.

December 6, 2013 – Emergency Order to Modify Signal System

FRA issued an Emergency Order to Metro-North requiring specific, immediate actions to improve safety.

The railroad must act to ensure train crews do not exceed speed limitations, including by identifying and prioritizing high-risk areas, modifying its existing signal system to ensure speed limits are obeyed, and ensuring a higher level of engagement and communication among operating crew members where major speed restrictions are in place.

Metro-North was required to provide FRA with a list of main track locations where there is a reduction of more than 20 MPH in the maximum authorized passenger train speed by December 10, 2013; the railroad also was required to submit to the FRA for approval by December 31 an Action Plan that ensures the safety of its operations for passengers and employees.

The Emergency Order is a mandatory directive to the railroad; failure to comply with its requirements will result in enforcement actions against the railroad or individuals who violate it. See our press release.

December 11, 2013 – Safety Advisory re: Speed Limits

FRA issued a Safety Advisory to help ensure railroads adhere to Federal regulations regarding maximum authorized train speed limits. The advisory contains four recommendations to ensure railroads comply with speed restrictions through appropriate operating policies, procedures and effective implementation. Among them are: 

  • All railroads should review the circumstances of the December 1, 2013, Spuyten Duyvil derailment with their operating employees.
  • Provide instruction to employees during training classes and safety briefings on the importance of compliance with maximum authorized train speed limits and other speed restrictions.
  • Evaluate results of operation data regarding speed testing.
  • Reinforce the importance of communication between train crewmembers located in the controlling locomotive, particularly during safety-critical periods when multiple tasks are occurring and during extended periods of inactivity.

To meet Emergency Order directives, Metro-North also provided FRA with its list of main track locations where there is a reduction of more than 20 MPH in the maximum authorized passenger train speed. It also began providing two qualified railroad employees to operate trains where major speed restrictions are in place until the signal system is updated. See our press release.

December 12, 2013 – Operation Deep Dive

FRA announced its plan to conduct Operation Deep Dive, a 60-day comprehensive safety assessment on Metro-North. On Monday, December 16, U.S. Department of Transportation technical and human factors experts will begin a comprehensive review and assessment of safety-critical procedures and processes at Metro-North. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) also will participate with FRA, and will ensure investments in Metro-North railroad are prioritized and support enhanced safety on the railroad. 

The rail safety team will look at:

  • Track, signal and rolling stock maintenance, inspection and repair practices;
  • Protection for employees working on rail infrastructure, locomotives and rail cars;
  • Communication between mechanical and transportation departments at maintenance facilities;
  • Operation control center procedures and rail traffic controller training;
  • Compliance with federal Hours of Service regulations, including fatigue management programs;
  • Evaluating results of operational data to measure efficiency of employees’ execution and comprehension of all applicable federal regulations;
  • Locomotive engineer oversight;
  • Engineer and conductor certification; and
  • Operating crew medical requirements.