As a redoubled federal probe into Metro-North Railroad's safety protocols looms, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Sunday that a funding crunch leaves the nation's rail-safety watchdog unable to adequately regulate railroads.
Blumenthal, D-Conn., said federal Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and the Federal Railroad Administration told Connecticut and New York lawmakers that they are able to inspect only 1 percent of the nation's 140,000 miles of track each year and are limited in their ability to do pre-emptive safety probes that could identify shortcomings before accidents happen.
The FRA recently announced the beginning of Operation Deep Dive, a 60-day, top-to-bottom probe of Metro-North's safety practices, including track signal function, car maintenance and compliance with federal regulations. And FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo is requesting $184.5 million for track inspections and other safety activities, an increase of $15 million over the 2013 budget which would enable the hiring of 45 new inspectors.
Blumenthal said that FRA needs more funding to expand those types of field investigations.
"Unfortunately, the Federal Railroad Administration has been AWOL when it comes to safety with many railroads around the country and has become engaged only after only four fatalities and five major incidents in a little over six months at Metro-North," he said. "We need to make sure it has the funding that is needed to enforce the rules, including following up regulations that were supposed to be in force years ago."
Four people were killed and 63 were injured two weeks ago in the Bronx, N.Y., when an early-morning commuter train derailed at a sharp curve on the Hudson Line near the Spuyten Duyvil station. The engineer of that train, William Rockefeller, has admitted dozing in the moments before the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board's initial investigation has indicated the train was running at 82 mph entering a curve on which the speed limit was 30 mph.
FRA spokesman Kevin Thompson on Sunday issued a response to Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., after both senators held a news conference at Grand Central Terminal calling for increased rail funding.
Thompson's statement indicated the FRA's $6.6 billion budget request for 2014 includes funding for grants for railroads to implement mandated positive train control systems that use Global Positioning Systems and trackside transponders to prevent collisions by automatically halting trains when they come dangerously close to each other.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded two weeks ago that a positive train control system might have averted the Bronx derailment, and has ordered Metro-North to expedite efforts to install the equipment across its system.
"We appreciate the senators' support for our safety and operations budget request and look forward to working with them to improve safety nationwide," Thompson's statement said.
The FRA has announced plans for a "strike team" of rail safety experts to audit Metro-North's protocols on a spectrum of passenger and employee safety issues including rail infrastructure, car maintenance, rail traffic controller training, and delving into operational data to check for violations of federal safety standards.
"Safety is our top priority, and this in-depth investigation will help ensure that Metro-North is doing everything possible to improve its safety record," Foxx said. "Together with our other recent efforts, Operation Deep Dive will give travelers the peace of mind they deserve when traveling throughout the railroad's region." The FRA has been monitoring track rehabilitation and replacement efforts throughout the system since May, when a New Haven Line train derailed in Bridgeport and struck another, injuring 76 people. About 500 people were on the trains.
In that accident, NTSB investigators revealed that Metro-North inspectors identified flaws with that section of track but did not issue a slow-speed order or shut down the track to complete the work. Read Full Article
Metro-North spokesman Sal Arena did not comment on Operation Deep Dive, but said Metro-North was trying to meet the orders and recommendations given by the FRA and NTSB to improve safety.
"We're doing everything we can to carry out all of the recommendations the FRA and NTSB have made so far," Arena said. "Ultimately, whatever lessons can be learned from this we're going to move (on) as quickly as we can to implement changes."