NTSB issues blistering 'probable cause' reports in Metro-North accidents

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N.J. Burkett has details on the report issued after a series of accidents in the past year. (WABC)

Nearly 11 months after a Metro-North derailment killed four people in the Bronx, federal regulators are sharing their conclusions about what caused the riverside wreck, as well as "probable causes" for four other incidents in New York and Connecticut that occurred within 11 months in 2013 and 2014.

The final reports from the five NTSB investigations of Metro-North accidents was released during a news conference at Grand Central Terminal Tuesday morning.

The reports are damning indictments of Metro-North's inability to either maintain their tracks or protect their workers, with investigators attributing the causes of all five incidents to either poor Metro-North policies or maintenance of the system.

"This would be almost a comedy of errors if it weren't so tragic," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday. "It's clear these mistakes were avoidable."

In the Bronx derailment on December 1, the NTSB determined the engineer failed to maintain the 30 mile-per-hour speed limit because he had fallen asleep due to "undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea exacerbated by a recent circadian rhythm shift required by his work schedule."

Contributing was the absence of a Metro-North policy or Federal Railroad Administration regulation requiring medical screening for sleep disorders, according to the report. Also contributing was the absence of a positive train control system that would have automatically applied the brakes to enforce the speed restriction. Contributing to the severity of the accident was the loss of the window glazing that resulted in four passengers being ejected from the train.

The NTSB ruled that the May 2013 derailment in Bridgeport, on the New Haven line, which injured 65 people, was caused by an undetected broken pair of compromise joint bars on the north rail of track 4, resulting from the lack of comprehensive track maintenance, the regulatory exemption for high density community railroads from the requirement to walk the tracks they inspect and Metro North's decision to defer scheduled track maintenance.

The East Harlem accident in March that killed a Metro-North electrician was caused by "the miscommunication of the limits of on-track protection resulting from incomplete and inaccurate roadway worker job briefings."

Contributing was use of a reference point for on tract protection that was poorly understood by some of the workers on the track.

The July 2013 derailment of a freight train hauling trash through the Bronx was caused was excessive track gage due to a combination of fouled ballast, deteriorated concrete tiles and profile deviations resulting in Metro North's decision to defer scheduled track maintenance.

Finally, the May 2013 accident in West Haven that killed a track foreman on the New Haven Line was caused by a student rail traffic controller's removal (while working without direct supervision) of the signal blocking protection for the track segment occupied by the track foreman and the failure of Metro-North to use any redundant feature to prevent this single point failure.

The board has previously issued hundreds of pages of findings from its investigations, but until now has emphasized that no cause had been established.

In March, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a stinging report on Metro-North, saying the railroad let safety concerns slip while pushing to keep trains on time. Railroad executives pledged to make safety their top priority.

Metro-North is the second-largest commuter rail line in the country. It carried more than 83.4 million riders between New York City and its suburbs last year.
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