Metro-North Had Neither Featherbedding Nor Safety

On Sunday, December 1, Metro-North reported an “accident occurred just before 7:30 a.m. … [A] southbound, Hudson Line train with about 120 passengers on board derailed just north of the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. All cars derailed.”[1] We now know four people died and many were injured.

On Friday, December 6, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an Emergency Order (EO 29) to Metro-North Commuter Railroad “to provide two qualified railroad employees to operate trains where major speed restrictions are in place until the signal system is updated.”[2]

Let’s absorb what that means. Once upon a time, except this is not a fairy tale, trains always had two people in the cab of the engine. Originally this was because the old steam engines needed firemen. They also had a brakeman. And they kept a second person in the cab after the shift to diesel locomotives. One person can drive a diesel. I drove a diesel when I was nine years old – I think it’s OK to say that a Mr. Benjamin at a rail yard in Hancock, NY, earned the undying affection of this little boy when he let me handle the controls in the yard – of course he was there as was my father. No one was in danger. But still I can report that one person, even a small one, could handle the controls.

Because one person could handle the controls, having two people got to be called “featherbedding” – it was treated as a union demand to preserve jobs at the cost of efficiency. Why pay for two people when one person could do the job?

The unions responded that it was necessary for safety. But it added to the cost of transportation. So out went the extra person.

The derailment of the Metro-North commuter train gives the true cost of what management likes to call featherbedding. It’s the loss of a margin of safety, a degree of redundancy. Commercial airplanes generally require at least two pilots in the cockpit. Railroads, though they may be carrying as many people, do not.

Much of so-called “modern” cost-cutting is about shifting the costs to someone else. In the case of railroads, management has been allowed to save money on its balance sheets by shifting the cost of safety to the people killed or injured in accidents and to their families. Is that cheaper or just the loss of concern for the maimed, injured and killed?

For decades, the National Transportation Safety Board has been trying to get the railroads to install an automatic safety backup system, known as “positive train control,” but the railroads fought it because it was expensive. Meanwhile politicians fought a national health insurance system – are still fighting it. No safety system. No health insurance. Just ordinary passengers with a hope and a prayer that other people would do the right thing – except obviously it was too expensive.

Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company is a public benefit corporation. Whoever claims that we can rely on corporations, public or private, because they have incentives to take care of us has his or her eyes blinded by green eye shades.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 10.


 

[1] The accident was reported by the railroad as “Metro-North to Provide Shuttle Bus Service Monday Morning,” available at http://new.mta.info/press-release/metro-north/metro-north-provide-shuttle-bus-service-monday-morning

[2] U.S. D.O.T. Press Release Number: FRA 29-13, December 6, 2013, available at http://www.fra.dot.gov/eLib/details/L04879.

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