Federal official blasts Metro-North for ‘unacceptable’ crashes

The head of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) called recent crashes on the New York Metro-North commuter railway “simply unacceptable,” in a letter to the agency obtained by The Hill.

FRA chief Joseph Szabo told his counterpart at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) that Metro-North’s problems go beyond Sunday's fatal train crash on the commuter railway’s Hudson Line. The accident resulted in the deaths of four passengers and injured about 70 others. 

Szabo said Metro-North has had four accidents in 2013, counting a May collision of two trains in Connecticut, a July freight rail accident in the same area of the track as Sunday’s crash and a Metro-North employee fatality in May.  

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Szabo said passengers looking at Metro-North’s overall safety record did not care if the incidents were unrelated to each other.

“The specific causes of each of these recent accidents may vary, but regardless of the reasons, four serious accidents in less than seven months is simply unacceptable,” Szabo wrote to MTA chief Thomas Prendergast.

“Not only have some of these incidents had tragic and catastrophic consequences, 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,” Szabo continued. 

Szabo said he appreciated Metro-North's and the MTA’s “ongoing engagement with us regarding safety oversight and improvements,” but he also said “more needs to be done.”

“Immediate corrective action is imperative,” Szabo wrote.

The most recent Metro-North crashed occurred on a train that was en route from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. to New York City on Sunday morning. The train, which was carrying about 150 passengers, derailed as it approached a sharp curve in the Bronx.

Federal investigators have said that the train in question was traveling 82 miles per hour in an area of track that has a 30 mile-per-hour speed limit in the seconds before the accident. The driver of the train has reportedly told investigators that he momentarily lost focus and was “not 100 percent awake” before the crash.

Szabo said the crash brought the death toll in Metro-North crashes to five in 2013. He added that there have been nearly 130 injuries.

The Obama administration’s rail chief said he was giving the Metro-North until Friday to update the railroad administrative agency on its efforts to improve safety on its trains.

“The MTA needs to demonstrate to [passengers and employees] a serious, good faith commitment to the safe operation of the system, and inform them of the steps that MTA will take to enhance safety in both the short- and long-term," Szabo wrote.

"We have significant concerns about the current situation at Metro-North, and are actively considering other ways that FRA can use its federal oversight authority to provide additional safety enhancement of MTA operations,” he said at another point in his letter to Prendergast.

The MTA operates both Metro-North and New York City’s subway system, which is the most heavily used public transportation network in the country.