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Railroad boosts undercover checks after NY crash

Published: Friday, Dec. 13, 2013 12:15 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Dec. 13, 2013 12:52 p.m. CDT

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The nation's second-largest commuter rail line is increasing scrutiny of its engineers and conductors onboard trains, a move that comes two weeks after a deadly derailment and a year after a similar effort was exposed as flawed.

Metro-North, which operates trains in and out of New York City, suburbs upstate and into Connecticut, is using more plainclothes spotters who slip aboard unnoticed to check that train operators are complying with all rules, said Marjorie Anders, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North.

"Obviously, as a result of the derailment, we have ramped up this function, including on-board observations," Anders said in an interview.

The train that crashed Dec. 1 sped into a 30-mph curve at 82 mph, killing four passengers and injuring scores more. Representatives of the train's engineer have said he may have briefly nodded off.

Anders said that since the spotters have begun their work, there have been no reports of Metro-North engineers nodding off or sleeping.

Anders wouldn't say how many spotters are on the job, how many trains they ride or how many shifts they cover. Spotters on other railroads also watch for trains that overshoot platforms and such customer service issues as doors that stick or failure to check fares. Employees can face retraining or discipline, potentially including being fired.

Train monitoring had been the responsibility of the railroad's customer service department over the past year, ever since a special unit created specifically to ride undercover and monitor train crews was disbanded in 2012 after a scathing state audit found its members failed to do their jobs.

The unit was formed in 2004 to keep an eye on crew performance in areas including fare collection and passenger safety, according to a 2011 report by state auditors. The unit had a supervisor and five employees, and each staff member was expected to take six train rides every day, rotating trips among every shift.

But the unit's members failed to document nearly a third of their rides, auditors found. The workers — who auditors estimated took on average four of the six trips required each day, sometimes staying in their offices or elsewhere — were using the Internet on the job to access Facebook and shop.

Although the workers were supposed to be incognito, they alerted co-workers by introducing themselves, auditors found. And one employee, a relative of an executive responsible for the unit, was hired over more qualified candidates.

The unit reported no significant safety concerns, auditors said.

After the auditors' report, Metro-North disbanded the unit and eliminated two of the six positions.

That response appears to indicate there may have been a net decrease of two employees performing undercover spot checks on trains, but Anders wouldn't say whether more spotters are on trains today than in the earlier unit.

"I am not going to provide specific numbers about how many safety spotters we have," she said this week. "We operate 700 trains a day and we sample them every day."

Metro-North is also the subject of a federal assessment of its safety systems, and the train operators are also following federal rules that require a second set of eyes in the operator's cab at certain curves and bridges, Anders said.

Federal rail officials also send spotters to ride trains, she said.

"They were out in force today," Anders said Tuesday.

A passenger advocate agreed with Anders that it's too speculative to consider whether a dedicated, on-board unit of observers systematically rotating through those 700 trains a day could have prevented the crash or would be better than the current spotter system.

"You can't be in all places at all times," said William Henderson, of the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council, a passenger advocacy panel. He said improved technology such as automatic stopping devices should be a higher priority.

"In general, there needs to be some kind of oversight and eyes in the field," he said. "How that's done, that's something the people who are dealing with the operations everyday have to sit down and decide."

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