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NJ Transit tops list of accidents, safety fines

FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2016 file photo, a New Jersey Transit employee rides on a train as it is moved out of the Hoboken Terminal in Hoboken, N.J., a week after the train crashed into the station, killing one person and injuring more than 100 people. Trains run by New Jersey Transit, which operates the nation’s second-largest commuter railroad, have been involved in 157 accidents since the start of 2011, three times as many as the largest, the Long Island Rail Road, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from January 2011 through July 2016. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
October 13, 2016 - 12:55 PM

The railroad whose rush-hour train slammed into a New Jersey station last month, killing a woman and injuring more than 100 people, has had more accidents and paid more in fines for safety violations than any other commuter railroad in the country over the past five years, federal safety data show.

Trains run by New Jersey Transit, which operates the nation's second-largest commuter railroad, have been involved in 157 accidents since the start of 2011, three times as many as the largest, the Long Island Rail Road, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from January 2011 through July 2016.

NJ Transit had a significantly higher accident rate during that span than the rest of the nation's 10 largest commuter railroads, ranked by weekday ridership, and had the highest rate of accidents attributed to human factors, such as speeding and drug impairment. In all, the accidents have caused more than $6 million in damage and injuries to 13 passengers.

At the same time, the state-run railroad has paid $519,280 in fines to settle 183 federal safety violations — nearly $160,000 more than the amount paid by Metro-North, the suburban New York railroad that carries slightly fewer weekday riders. They included 33 violations for drug or alcohol use and 33 violations of operating procedures, both more than any other commuter railroad.

"It speaks to a culture of not caring, of indifference to the safety of commuters, and paying fines without worrying about the effect of their infringements," said Michael Lamonsoff, a lawyer whose clients include a Hoboken victim. "This accident is testament to the fact they really don't care about their commuters."

NJ Transit officials declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing investigation into the Hoboken crash. In the past, they've touted safety as their top priority.

Among other key findings in the AP's review:

— NJ Transit had an accident rate of 2.7 per million miles travelled, nearly one full accident per million miles higher than that of the second most accident-prone railroad, the Chicago area's Metra.

— NJ Transit had 75 derailments, meaning at least one wheel left the track. That's more than the next four railroads combined. Its derailment rate of 1.27 per million miles travelled was nearly double that of Metra's.

— NJ Transit's extensive use of overhead power factored in more than one-third of its accidents, with 57 incidents involving damage to the wires or a train's pantograph device.

— Human behaviour was a factor in 57 per cent of NJ Transit's accidents — 13 per cent higher than the next highest railroad and occurred at a rate of 1.52 per million miles travelled, three times higher than any other railroad.

— Human behaviour accounted for a higher percentage of NJ Transit accidents in each of the past three years: 58 per cent in 2014, 62 per cent in 2015 and 67 per cent in the first seven months of 2016.

Federal regulators found dozens more violations and issued additional fines during an audit that began months before the Sept. 29 crash at Hoboken Terminal renewed questions about NJ Transit's safety practices. Details of the audit, spurred by an uptick in incidents and a rash of senior management departures, have not been made public and its results were not counted in the AP's analysis.

NJ Transit's commuter railroad serves more than 320,000 weekday riders. It is the third major commuter railroad to face a federal safety investigation in the past four years, following inquiries into Metro-North's spate of major accidents in 2013 and three potentially catastrophic safety violations within a week in 2014 on Metra.

The railroad started a system for employees to confidentially report incidents and close calls without fearing punishment in 2009 and opened a system safety office in 2014 amid criticism that its safety operation was understaffed. Still, like many railroads, NJ Transit has yet to adopt positive train control technology designed to automatically slow or stop trains that are going too fast.

Deep budget cuts and employee turnover have undermined the railroad's commitment to safety, said Stephen Burkert, the head of the union representing NJ Transit train conductors.

"We're always looking for safety. We want the safest railroad possible," Burkert said Thursday. "I don't want to hear that because (Gov. Chris) Christie cut a budget we don't have money to implement a safety device that would have prevented this (accident) or prevented something in the future. I never want to hear safety has a price tag."

The Hoboken train was going double the 10 mph speed limit when it crashed into a bumping post and hurtled into the waiting area, National Transportation Safety Board investigators said. The impact sent debris raining down, killing a 34-year-old woman standing on the platform.

After the crash, NJ Transit required conductors to join engineers and provide a second set of eyes when trains pull into stations where the end of the track meets a platform.

The rail industry contends that commuter trains are safe and that accidents are rare. Indeed, most accidents in AP's analysis of major commuter railroads caused minor damage and no injuries. About one-third occurred in rail yards and more than half happened at speeds below 20 mph.

Accident and safety violations data open a window into the safety culture at commuter railroads and can help spotlight areas of concern, said David B. Clarke, who runs the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

"You can look at a low level accident as being a possible indicator of a higher risk of a consequential accident," Clarke said. "It's kind of like smoke, and in any case there could be a fire."

In New Jersey, an ember appeared about 15 months before last month's fatal crash.

A train going just 3 mph ran through a stop signal and hit a bumping block at Hoboken Terminal in June 2015, causing $23,800 in damage, according to an accident report filed with federal regulators.

It's unclear whether the accident had any effect on operating procedures.

Concerns over the intersection of rail safety and human behaviour came to a head last winter after 10 train yard incidents in a two-month span. A safety alert from NJ Transit warned of a "dangerous trend" and said most of the incidents resulted from a lack of communication, failure to follow proper procedures or human error.

"When you see human factor accidents, the first thing that comes to mind to me is how strong is the safety culture," Clarke said. "I kind of look at that as sloppiness. If people are sloppy then they're not taking a lot of things seriously."

For this article, the AP compared Federal Railroad Administration accident and safety violation data for the nation's 10 largest commuter railroads, dating to 2011. Accident data ran through July, the latest available month, and excluded incidents in which damage to tracks and equipment was lower than the government's reporting threshold — $9,400 in 2011 and $10,500 in 2016.

Violation data covered all cases closed in the 2011-2015 fiscal years. Some included infractions that occurred in previous years.

Because of differences in the size of each railroad's operations, from number of daily riders to the amount of track owned, a formula was used to adjust accident numbers to a rate of accidents per million miles travelled.

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Reach Mike Sisak (@mikesisak), David Porter (@DavidPorter_AP) and Mike Balsamo (@MikeBalsamo1) on Twitter, follow their work @APEastRegion and read more about the Hoboken train crash at https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hobokentraincrash

News from © The Associated Press, 2016
The Associated Press

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