New York’s Rail Systems Need an Overhaul

Last week’s fatal accident where a metro-North commuter train struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing in Valhalla, New York, raised questions about the ability of the railroad and the MTA to ensure the safety of their riders.

It is important to remember that over all, this transportation system remains a very safe alternative to driving. However, the crash that killed the driver of the vehicle, five commuters and injured 12 others is only the latest in the string of accidents that have plagued Metro-North during the last few years. On December 1, 2013, the Hudson-line train flew off the tracks while rounding a curve at 82 MPH at Spuyten Duyvill, killing four and injuring 70. It was only in May of that year when another Metro-North train jumped the tracks and was then hit by on-coming train. That collision shut down the system for several days and injured 50 riders. There were additional incidents where track workers were injured or killed recently, including a power outage that knocked out portions of the system for several days.

According to the Federal Railway Administration, which investigated the 2013 fatal derailment, Metro-North has major deficiencies in how it handles the safety of its system. The agency, in it’s report entitled “Operation Deep Dive, Metro North Commuter Safety Assessment ” was critical of how the railroad trains its workers, citing rushed training programs. The agency called the railroad’s safety system “ineffective” and “inconsistent and often fragmented.”

The railroad has no centralized way of recording which employees took which training courses, so it has no real way of knowing who needs more safety training. In addition, some safety training is poorly attended and conducted by different departments, so there is no central oversight on whether the courses fully provide a comprehensive curriculum on safety.

The FRA concluded that one of the fundamental problems with Metro-North was its emphasis from senior management on meeting time tables and having good on-time performance at the sacrifice of the safety of its passengers, leading to a “deficient safety culture.” In other words, railroad management was more concerned with looking good than worrying about the dangers their passengers are taking by riding on an unsafe railroad.

There lies a key problem with the Metro-North and its parent agency, the MTA: trying to make the rail and subway systems look good, rather than making a good commuter transportation system. One has to only look at the recently completed Fulton transit hub. Completed at the cost of $1.4 billion, double the original sticker price, the hub has a glitzy glass dome, circular staircases, shopping areas, and wide-open spaces.

But despite all the hype of a new hub, it’s just a fancy facade imposed on a hundred-year-old subway system that’s composed of a maze of subway tracks, from what were originally independent subway lines, in dire need of a major overhaul. Sure, the new hub looks impressive, but it’s just as difficult to navigate between the different subway lines that stop at Fulton Street as when the station was a series of dimly lit convoluted passageways. A true overhaul, one that would take into account the needs of the commuters, would have meant spending the money on moving rails around to end the maze-like tracks and on cleaning up the subway platforms themselves. The MTA bigwigs and politicians gave themselves an expensive ego trip, while New Yorkers have to still content themselves with commuter trips of questionable safety.

And close by to the Fulton Street hub, although not under the oversight of the MTA, but rather under the scandal-ridden Port Authority, is the new World Trade Center PATH station, which is turning out to be another transportation boondoggle at a cost of $3.7 billion. The station doesn’t extend the PATH line one inch and doesn’t provide any extra capacity or improved rail infrastructure. The structure, with its winglike additions to the roof, look more fitting for an airport than a train station.

The technology exists to make a much safer and more reliable commuter rail system. Unfortunately, too much of taxpayer money has been tossed into projects of dubious value.

It is too early to draw any conclusions regarding this latest tragedy. Regardless of what the conclusions of the ongoing investigations show, it is time to focus on building a rail infrastructure that is fitting for the 21st-Century, not the 19th.