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Commentary: Train derailment kills four. Who’s to blame?

It could have been you or me that died in that derailment in the Bronx on Dec. 1. Instead, it was Kisook Ahn, James Ferrari, Jim Lovell and Donna Smith who lost their lives riding that train.

It will be months before the NTSB finishes its investigation of what happened and why, but it is clear that it could have been prevented. Why wasn’t it?

Jim Cameron Transportation

Jim Cameron

None of us yet has the answers, but there are plenty of questions:

• Why did engineer William Rockefeller first claim that the train’s brakes had failed only later to claim he had “zoned out”? Which of those explanations was a lie and which an excuse?

• Why did the engineer’s union go to the press to plead his case, only to be kicked out of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation for breaking the rules? Is this a PR case study or a forensic investigation?

• Why did his train’s controls lack an alerter system that would have warned him that he was going 80 mph approaching a 30-mph curve?

• Why was Metro-North President Howard Permut noticeably absent at the crash scene and subsequent NTSB press conferences for five days after the deadly crash? Isn’t he responsible for this railroad?

• Why didn’t Permut and MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast attend the wakes and funerals of those who died on their railroad? How do they keep their jobs when employee morale is as low as passenger confidence?

• Why does Metro-North have such a dismal record of disciplining engineers who violate its rules, suspending only 49 and firing one in a four-year period while the Long Island Railroad suspended 884 and fired 12 over the same period?

• Why did Metro-North drag its feet for five years after a federal order to install Positive Train Control while other commuter railroads met the mandate?

• Why did the Federal Railroad Administration wait until there had been three derailments, a track foreman’s death and the Con Edison meltdown to admonish Metro-North in writing for its dismal safety record?

 

An emotional roller coaster

Since that Sunday morning high-speed derailment, I have been on an emotional roller coaster from depression and grief to anger and disbelief. Nobody seems to be accepting responsibility for what happened and yet everybody is to blame.

Engineer Rockefeller, with an otherwise spotless record, appears to have made a deadly mistake that will haunt him the rest of his life. His union argues it was a medical condition, so he’s not criminally negligent and may never stand trial.

Metro-North management argues that speed alerters are not required on older trains, though they certainly seem necessary and will probably be retrofitted.

 

Metro-North claim: Anomalies

With PR chutzpah, Metro-North says the last five months of disasters don’t blemish 30-plus years of safe operations — that they are anomalies. Really? The voyage of the Titanic was so smooth until it hit that iceberg.

Does anyone really believe all these calamities are just bad timing? Am I the only one who sees a pattern that worsens with each passing month?

After the July 2011 stranding of a train near Westport (on the hottest day of the year), when passengers felt so abandoned by Metro-North they called 9-1-1 to be rescued by firefighters, I asked a simple question: Is it time to fire Metro-North?

Until now, two years later, nobody has taken that question seriously. Why?

 

‘A conspiracy of silence and obfuscation’

As I wrote in my recent column explaining my recent resignation from the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, “Metro-North and the Connecticut DOT are in a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation.”

Who’s to blame for the death of those four commuters? Everybody who has failed to change that situation.

 

Jim Cameron of Darien was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. Teach him at Jim@MediaTrainer.tv.

 

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