Federal government blasts Metro-North for safety flaws

METRO NORTH TRAINHost Intro:

A spate of accidents over the past year has drawn scrutiny to the commuter rail network Metro North. The embattled agency got its official comeuppance earlier today when the Federal Railroad Administration issued a scathing report. It faulted Metro North for prioritizing speed over safety. Avi Wolfman-Arent rode the rails to hear what commuters and politicians are saying.

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Metro North’s Hudson Line starts in Poughkeepsie and winds its way to Grand Central Station. Deborah, a nurse who works at Beth Israel, has been riding the line every day for a decade. She boarded the train in Hasting-on-Hudson, flush against the river, and says it’s the prettiest commuter ride in the New York area.

DEBORAH: The water is very soothing, the way the countryside is laid out and the activity, the bird on the river, it’s just lovely. [0:09]

These days, though, the trail is dotted with tragedies. The latest: James Romansoff was killed Monday when a train struck and killed him near 106th and Park Avenue in the city. Romansoff lived his life along the Hudson Line. Traveling north to south the train stops at Glenwood, a short commute from Gorton High School where Romansoff matriculated. It then speeds past the Domino Sugar Factory where Romansoff worked for over 20 years. He later landed a job as an electrical worker for Metro North, repairing the same track he once worked alongside. One stop later the train pulls up to Ludlow Station, a short walk from Romansoff’s apartment. Neighbors remembered the 58-year-old as a kind, quiet man who would often clean the tiled lobby floor. Ralston Charron heard about Romansoff’s death on the news.

CHARRON: Oh I was shocked, because he’s a young guy, very quiet. The super tell me he see him Sunday about to go off on the weekend and then to work. And then to hear him died? It was like a shock to me. [0:11]

Romansoff is the second Metro North worker to be hit and killed by a train in the past year. As the train continues south, it approaches the curve just past Spuyten Duyvil station. That’s where a December train derailment killed four and injured more than 70.  Longtime Hudson Line rider Ruth Gastel holds her breath every time she rides past the accident site.

GASTEL: Whenever we went around the corner I was a little worried as to what might happen. [0:06]

Today’s news only exacerbated Gastel’s anxiety. A federal investigation launched two weeks after the Spuuten Duyvil derailment accuses Metro North of a “deficient safety culture” and says agency leadership put punctuality above rider well-being. That report referenced the Spuyten Duyvil derailment as well as two other non-fatal Metro North train derailments in the past year.

GASTEL: I was a little horrified. The thought that all this has been going on and we’ve all been riding on the train not knowing that there was a common thread to all these accidents, that they just haven’t been diligent enough. [0:16]

The federal probe, known as Operation Deep Dive, placed the bulk of the blame with Metro North leadership.  The report made repeated reference to agency culture and said worker training was insufficient.

New York Senator Charles Schumer held a press conference at Grand Central Station, the Hudson Line’s terminus, to address the reports findings. He echoed many of its main concerns.

SCHUMER: There were many different types of accidents and even tragedies. All had different specific origins, but every one points to the fact that the people at the very top did not make culture a top priority. [0:14]

That explanation doesn’t sit well with Elliott Sclar, a professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University. Sclar says that by targeting incompetence at Metro North, the government is skirting the real problem: inadequate funds.

SCLAR: I would be concerned that there’s a safety issue. I am concerned. But I think it’s not a cultural issue, it’s a funding issue. [0:07]

Connecticut congresswoman Elizabeth Esty offered a similar sentiment. Instead of blaming Metro North, she blamed her colleagues.

ESTY: There has been a dramatic and systematic failure on the part of lawmakers and particularly in Washington to prioritize investments in infrastructure. Our budgets do reflect our priorities. And this is a question of political will. [0:16]

For folks like Gastel and Charron, blame is less important than action. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the accident that led to Rosmansoff’s death. His memorial service will be held tomorrow morning at 10 am.

Avi Wolfman-Arent, Columbia Radio News.

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