FRA has taken two rather unusual and drastic actions regarding the status of safe train operations on Metro-North Railroad. First, it issued a letter to the chairman of the MTA expressing its concern, and stating, more or less, "we'll be in touch." Secondly it has just issued Emergency Order 29.
Regarding that letter, I only care to say these two things: (1) Never in my railroad management career was I part of a staff that received a letter like that (2) Had I been a manager at such a railroad, I would have resigned my position, turned in my pass, and sought other employment.
The Emergency Order requires a bit more elaborate, and controlled, response than that since it has the force of law, and has certain ominous repercussions for the industry as a whole.
First, let's get the courtesies out the way. I'm not going to complain about regulatory overreach, or government interference or any of that nonsense. FRA has emergency authority and in an emergency it can direct and require those things it regards as essential to the preservation of lives.
FRA is in a tough spot, a tough, tough spot. And, like Metro-North, it put itself in that spot. In August 2012, FRA issued a report to Congress detailing the progress or lack thereof in the installation of PTC. In that reporting FRA decided to endorse the complaints of railroads, freight and passenger, that the 2015 due date for PTC should be pushed back to 2018.
After Chatsworth, after Goodwell, after Two Harbors, after Mineral Springs, after Bettendorf, after Rialto, after all those human error accidents that PTC can, and will, prevent, FRA advocated pushing back the date for mandatory PTC operation. Not only has FRA recommended pushing back the date, in the interim period it has subjected PTC requirements to a de minimis standard which has exempted significant portions of track, and significant portions of traffic from PTC requirements.
And now this, or rather these, these incidents on Metro-North. With fatalities, passenger fatalities. "Unacceptable" says FRA. Indeed, unacceptable it is, but it is the inevitable result of certain failures, certain deficiencies that the emergency order will not rectify.
It is most certainly nonsense to proclaim "that human error will always be with us." Non-sense, not because human error won't always be with us, but because the presence or lack thereof has nothing to do with how we run, or should run, a railroad. We should organize our work on the railroad around the recognition of risk, and what steps can be taken to progressively, consistently, continuously minimize the risk in the operation. And equally nonsensical is the claim that "We have zero tolerance for risk." Of course we have tolerance for risk. We have a tolerance for rational risk that we must accept in the moment in order to be able to minimize in the future.
FRA mandates that Metro North assign two qualified persons to be in the controlling operating cab of a train where there is a reduction of more than 20 mph from the MAS. I'm not going to ask for the science behind the "20 mph tipping point." In this instance, FRA is not responding to science, but to a threat.
I am going to ask FRA to look at the main line collisions and derailments of every Class 1 railroad in the country over the last 20 years and tell me how many people were in the controlling locomotive cab? How many people in the locomotive cabs at Goodwell? How many at Creston? It's not science, but it is a fact that history of US railroading is littered with the wreckage of accidents that had 2 or more persons in the operating cab of the locomotive.
FRA also mandates Metro-North to modify its existing signal system to ensure compliance with and enforcement of ("obey" is the word FRA uses) speed reductions greater than 20 mph. FRA applies this to Metro-North, but to no other railroad in the country, including commuter railroads that operate without any form of automatic speed control.
For years FRA refrained from requiring cab signals supplemented with train stop or speed control for service conducted at speeds of less than 80 mph.
Despite the availability of signal control systems capable of enforcing the safe separation of trains, it is only within the last 25 years that FRA has mandated use of these systems on lines within the Northeast Corridor operating area.
Moreover with the 20 mph specification, this EO leaves untouched the fact that actual "civil" speeds of the maximum track speed are not signal enforced-- the locomotive engineer operating over a track where the MAS is 60 mph can operate the train at 90 mph, and then curve that was exempted from special protection because at 50 mph it is only 10 mph less than the MAS, is now unprotected in a situation regarding a 40 mph speed reduction.
This is exactly why technology is not, not yet, a substitute for supervision.
What should be done? My emergency order would order Metro-North supervision to develop a random selection program for downloading event recorders from a minimum 2% of the total trains operated daily. I would require that at least 1 train in each direction from each line be downloaded and reviewed daily. I would require that the locomotive engineer be notified, just as is done now for random drug and alcohol test, and be required to be present when the examination of the download is performed. I would require the analyzing officer and the employee jointly verify the results of the review. I would require that the railroad outline a program that includes retraining, retesting of employees exhibiting disregard for temporary and permanent speed restrictions. I would require that any single "flagrant" violation trigger an irrevocable disciplinary process. I would require that copies of the downloads be forwarded and reviewed further by a committee including the general road foreman of engines, the director of operating rules, and the division superintendent. I would require them to validate the previous review.
And then I would park a couple of my Federal bodies on the property and check the checkers.
Dec 6, 2013