Feds find Metra 'generally compliant' but cite safety issues
Do you feel safe in a Metra train that's "generally compliant" with federal regulations?
That's the question riders will be asking after an audit released Thursday by the Federal Railroad Administration listed seven areas of concern involving safety. Those included: conductors being torn between safety-sensitive duties and collecting fares, better warnings when trains switch tracks at high speeds and improved communications between conductors and engineers.
The review occurred after three close calls in May and June involving two cases of speeding on the Rock Island Line and one of missing a stop signal on the Metra Electric District.
FRA officials stated that it found "Metra generally compliant with federal regulations; however, FRA believes that continuous safety improvement should be the goal of every rail property."
"Safety is and always will be Metra's No. 1 priority, and we could not agree more with the FRA's statement that continuous safety improvement should be the goal of every railroad," spokesman Michael Gillis said in a statement. "That is why we are pleased that the FRA's focused safety assessment found that Metra is generally compliant with all federal safety regulations, and why we have already implemented several of their recommendations and are taking other recommendations under consideration."
In the Rock Island Line cases, one engineer was traveling at 53 mph in a 30 mph area of track on May 27 and a second engineer was speeding at 61 mph in a 40 mph area on June 2.
The FRA noted that both engineers had unspecified safety occurrences prior that were not reported in a timely manner.
The agency recommended all safety problems be reported to headquarters immediately and that a "close call" confidential telephone line be established so employees could report problems.
Officials also noted that Metra prioritizes running trains on time and collecting fares, but this focus can be distracting to conductors. For example, staff at Metra's GPS center will call conductors to ask about service delays, which can mean they're not communicating with train engineers.
The government also noted that sometimes conductors don't remind engineers about new speed restrictions and likewise engineers can fail to update conductors about issues with signals.
"This lack of communication generates an unnecessary level of risk," the FRA stated, noting that this was a factor in the Electric District case where a train missed a signal.
Metra should "ensure the train's crew has the latitude to make the safe operation of the train the highest priority," regulators said.
The FRA also recommended Metra expedite installing Positive Train Control, a federally mandated automatic braking system. Metra is considering raising fares to generate the $400 million shortfall for the system.
"Notwithstanding Metra's ranking as one of the safest commuter railway systems in the nation, even one incident is one too many," Gillis said. "We thank the FRA for expediting their assessment and report, so that we can take immediate and appropriate actions to improve."