NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Metro-North, the nation's second-largest commuter railroad, has been fined $552,000 over the past decade for safety violations and defects, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Friday.
The Connecticut Democrat announced the fines for 139 violations since 2004 in his latest bid to draw attention to what he describes as a need to restore safety and reliability to the railroad.
Defects and violations are commonly found during inspections and audits, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said, and Metro-North said it has been implementing significant measures to improve safety. The railroad had two derailments last year, one in New York City that left four passengers dead and one in Bridgeport that injured dozens. It carried more than 83.4 million riders between New York City and its suburbs last year.
"While not every reported defect is a serious safety threat, the magnitude of violations is deeply troubling," Blumenthal said. "The pertinence and practical importance of these defects is staggeringly clear."
The derailments are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Metro-North has made tremendous strides in improving its safety culture, spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said. The railroad did a thorough inspection of its tracks and other infrastructure, tightened safeguards on when tracks are put back into service and is implementing other improvements such as anonymous reporting of near-accidents, she said.
"Metro-North Railroad is working every day with the Federal Railroad Administration and National Transportation Safety Board to correct the safety issues raised by the recent tragic accidents and the subsequent federal review and recommendations," Anders said. "We share Senator Blumenthal's objective, which is ensuring the safety of our customers, employees and the public at large."
While Metro-North was fined $552,000, the railroad ultimately paid about $239,000 after settlement negotiations required by federal law, according to figures provided by Blumenthal.
Blumenthal sought the data after a story this month by Hearst Connecticut Media, which reported that federal inspectors over the last decade found more than 7,100 defects and deficiencies in Metro-North Railroad. Inspections during 2013 uncovered five times as many issues per 100 miles of track as similar inspections of other commuter railroads, Kevin Thompson, an FRA spokesman, told the newspaper.
"While that is a significant concern for us, it doesn't mean the railroad is unsafe to ride," Thompson said.
Anders told the newspaper that thousands of defects over 10 years is not unusual in the industry.
Of the 139 violations, 60 involved accident reporting; 11 were alcohol and drug violations; 27, passenger equipment safety standards; 14, railroad operating practices; 3, roadway worker protection; and 5, track safety standards, Blumenthal said, citing FRA data.
He criticized the agency for not imposing steeper fines or stepping up its enforcement until last year despite a spike in violations five years earlier.
Thompson said civil penalties are one of several enforcement tools designed to promote full compliance with federal safety regulations.
"When we identify a defect or a violation, we act on them and require the offending railroad to rectify its problems," Thompson said. "As a data-driven agency, our inspection and audit data help to inform how, when and where we deploy our limited resources and this approach is largely responsible for the 50 percent reduction in train accidents across the country over the last decade."
He said it's not unusual for inspections and audits to find defects and violations and said accident reporting violations can involve mistakes in paperwork related to minor incidents. More than 40 percent of the violations involved accident reporting.