Five Years After Metro-North Derailment, An Overdue Reckoning with Rail’s Safety

Recent train and subway accidents have led to renewed attention to the 2013 Metro-North derailment that killed four and injured dozens. After an investigation by showed that the Metro-North Railroad still had not installed the required safety equipment to prevent another crash, Connecticut Senator Blumenthal and New York Senator Chuck Schumer called for the railroad to speed up its efforts.

derailment-300x225On December 1, 2013, a train on the Hudson Line of the Metro-North flew off the rails going 80 miles-per-hour on a turn with a speed limit of 30 mph. The engineer in control of the train, William Rockefeller, had apparently dozed off. In response to the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report pointing towards an absence of “Positive Train Control” as a contributing factor in the accident.

Positive Train Control, or PTC, is a safety technology that automatically puts the brakes on trains that are going too fast. Because of its lifesaving ability, the Rail Safety Improvement Act, a federal law passed in 2008, required all trains to have the new technology installed by the end of 2018. Despite the law and the horrific accident almost four years ago, the Metro-North has not made any significant progress on meeting this federal requirement.

In response to the delay, Senator Blumenthal said, “There is no excuse for delay. Metro-North must expedite this important work before it misses yet another federal deadline.” Senator Schumer was also unequivocal. “This is a shot across their bow. If they don’t speed things up, we’ll see what action we’ll take,” the highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate said.

The lack of progress on installing mandatory safety features follows an investigation by showing that Metro-North may have been more complicit in the tragic derailment than previously reported. According to the newspaper, the engineer responsible for controlling the train, William Rockefeller, had been diagnosed with fatigue and sleep disorders in 2011 – a diagnosis which he apparently disclosed to Metro-North. In fact, on the day of the derailment, Rockefeller told an assistant conductor, “It’s your job to keep me awake,” according to Bronx prosecutors who ultimately cleared him of criminal charges in 2015. The now-retired assistant conductor, Maria Herbert, has denied the conversation occurred.

Further, the newspaper states that the Metro-North had been intentional, and not merely neglectful, in not installing PTC on its trains. In 2005, after a train nearly derailed on the same curve that caused the 2013 accident, a Metro-North official responsible for overseeing the engineers told higher-ups at the transit company to install safety equipment on the curve. According to the newspaper, Metro-North bosses rejected the idea because it could affect the train line’s timely performance.

With over 775 miles of track stretching throughout the northeast, the Metro-North is a lifeline for many residents of Westchester and Rockland Counties in New York. With a history of safety problems and a failure to meet federal regulations, the increased pressure by the Senators from New York and Connecticut will hopefully lead to a change in the culture of safety.


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