Friday, March 14, 2014

Deficient Safety Culture at Metro-North Railroad

A new Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) report* excoriates the safety performance of the Metro-North Commuter Railroad which serves New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.  The report highlights problems in the Metro-North safety culture (SC), calling it “poor”, “deficient” and “weak”.  Metro-North’s fundamental problem, which we have seen elsewhere, is putting production ahead of safety.  The report’s conclusion concisely describes the problem: “The findings of Operation Deep Dive demonstrate that Metro-North has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure. This led to a deficient safety culture that has manifested itself in increased risk and reduced safety on Metro-North.” (p. 4)

The proposed fixes are likewise familiar: “. . . senior leadership must prioritize safety above all else, and communicate and implement that priority throughout Metro-North. . . . submit to FRA a plan to improve the Safety Department’s mission and effectiveness. . . . [and] submit to FRA a plan to improve the training program. (p. 4)**

Our Perspective 


This report is typical.  It’s not bad, but it’s incomplete and a bit misguided.

The directive for senior management to establish safety as the highest priority and implement that priority is good but incomplete.  There is no discussion of how safety is or should be appropriately considered in decision-making throughout the agency, from its day-to-day operations to strategic considerations.  More importantly, Metro-North’s recognition, reward and compensation practices (keys to shaping behavior at all organizational levels) are not even mentioned.

The Safety Department discussion is also incomplete and may lead to incorrect inferences.  The report says “Currently, no single department or office, including the Safety Department, proactively advocates for safety, and there is no effort to look for, identify, or take ownership of safety issues across the operating departments. An effective Safety Department working in close communication and collaboration with both management and employees is critical to building and maintaining a good safety culture on any railroad.” (p. 13)  A competent Safety Department is certainly necessary to create a hub for safety-related problems but is not sufficient.  In a strong SC, the “effort to look for, identify, or take ownership of safety issues” is everyone’s responsibility.  In addition, the authors don’t appear to appreciate that SC is part of a loop—the deficiencies described in the report certainly influence SC, but SC provides the context for the decision-making that currently prioritizes on-time performance over safety.

Metro-North training is fragmented across many departments and the associated records system is problematic.  The proposed fix focuses on better organization of the training effort.  There is no mention of the need for training content to include any mention of safety or SC.

Not included in the report (but likely related to it) is that Metro-North’s president retired last January.  His replacement says Metro-North is implementing “aggressive actions to affirm that safety is the most important factor in railroad operations.”***

We have often griped about SC assessments where the recommended corrective actions are limited to more training, closer oversight and selective punishment.  How did the FRA do?   


*  Federal Railroad Administration, “Operation Deep Dive Metro-North Commuter Railroad Safety Assessment” (Mar. 2014).  Retrieved Mar. 14, 2014.  The FRA is an agency in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

**  The report also includes a laundry list of negative findings and required/recommended corrective actions in several specific areas.

***  M. Flegenheimer, “Report Finds Punctuality Trumps Safety at Metro-North,” New York Times (Mar. 14, 2014).  Retrieved Mar. 14, 2014)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment. We read them all. We'd like to display them under their respective posts on our main page but that's not how Blogger works.