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Tend to mess at Metro-North

Tuesday, March 18, 2014
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“Unsafe at any speed,” the book about the Chevy Corvair that made a name for Ralph Nader half a century ago, could also be the title of a new Federal Railroad Administration report on the Metro-North Railroad — a commuter line that many a Capital Region resident uses to access New York City from the mid-Hudson Valley.

The report stems from an investigation ordered after the fatal early-morning derailment Dec. 1, in which a conductor who later acknowledged “nodding off” hit a sharp curve in the Bronx at full speed.

Unfortunately, fatigue among conductors doesn’t appear to be the half of Metro-North’s safety problems. According to the report released Friday, the railroad has allowed the safety of workers, as well as passengers, to take a back seat to on-time performance, with tragic results.

Aside from the early-December crash, which killed four and injured 70, Metro-North trains were involved in three other serious accidents last year, including a collision between two trains that injured 72 passengers in Connecticut; and the death of a track foreman, also in Connecticut, caused by a trainee rail controller opening a stretch of track while people were still working to repair it.

The feds’ investigation found many “obvious signs of a weak safety culture”: poor track maintenance; workers pressured to rush track repairs; inadequate training for track inspectors as well as control center workers — many of whom are relatively inexperienced; track workers openly using cellphones on the job in violation of the rules; poor attendance at safety briefings, etc.

According to a report in Friday’s New York Times, the railroad has recently taken some steps to address these and other issues, but there are obviously still problems: Just last Monday, an employee was killed while working on tracks in New York City.

The railroad’s new leadership clearly has to rethink its priorities regarding safety, even if it means spending more money and slowing down trains. Arriving safe and sound a few minutes late is better than risking the life and limb of hundreds of thousands of people daily.

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