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Metro-North rail line faulted for safety risks

A Metro-North passenger train derailed last December in the Bronx, an accident that killed four passengers.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

A Metro-North passenger train derailed last December in the Bronx, an accident that killed four passengers.

NEW YORK — Metro-North, the nation’s second-largest commuter railroad, allowed safety to erode while pushing to keep its trains on time, resulting in a lax culture of inadequate inspections, poor training, and inappropriate cellphone use, according to a stinging federal report prompted by a deadly derailment.

In a report to Congress on Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration said Metro-North’s emphasis on sticking to its schedule ‘‘led to a deficient safety culture that has manifested itself in increased risk and reduced safety.’’

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It said that ‘‘no single department or office, including the Safety Department, proactively advocates for safety’’ at the railroad, which carried 843 million riders between New York City and its suburbs in 2013.

FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo said on a conference call that Metro-North ‘‘failed to set aside sufficient time’’ for track inspection and maintenance and resisted testing its crews on its main lines, ‘‘the most important place to do it,’’ for fear of delaying passenger trains.

The agency ordered the railroad to immediately ‘‘prioritize safety above all else’’ and spread that idea throughout the railroad.

The review was prompted by a Dec. 1 derailment in the Bronx that killed four passengers and injured about 70 others. But it also cited three other accidents in 2013: a derailment in Bridgeport, Conn., that injured more than 50 people; an accident in West Haven, Conn., that killed a Metro-North worker; and a freight train derailment in June in New York City.

It did not include another worker’s death on the tracks Monday in Manhattan.

Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti, who took office after the Bronx derailment, said at a Grand Central Terminal news conference that the report was ‘‘deeply troubling and it raises real concerns.’’

‘‘Safety was not the top priority,’’ he said. ‘‘It must be and it will be . . . Every problem I have seen here can be fixed and will be fixed.’’ He said ‘‘aggressive actions’’ were already underway, including a program that would allow workers to make confidential calls raising safety issues.

Metro-North also has modified signals and posted speed limits. The train that derailed in the Bronx was going 82 miles per hour as it entered a curve with a 30 mile-per-hour speed limit, the National Transportation Safety Board has found.

The NTSB’s full report on the derailment is several months away.

On the conference call, Democratic Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut called for more personnel changes. Giulietti said he expects to announce shortly a new chief of transportation and a new person in charge of engineering.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said, ‘‘We’ve changed leadership at Metro-North. We’re doing everything we can as quickly as we can to make it safer . . . I understand the importance of on-time service; people want that too. But more important is safety.’’

Metro-North riders said the derailment had made them more concerned about riding.

‘‘People are definitely more afraid,’’ said Brenda Gonzalez, an office manager from Mount Vernon. She said measures should be taken ‘‘if there’s a real danger to commuters.’’

David Bishop of Scarsdale said the findings in Friday’s report would have surprised him ‘‘until the accident they had last year.’’

Politicians including Representative Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, called for more funding for Metro-North and other railroads to install positive train control, a technology that Szabo said probably would have prevented the Bronx derailment.

The report found that Metro-North training needs improvement in at least seven areas, ranging from track safety to engineer certification to dispatch.

It found that the railroad’s rules addressing workers’ use of cellphones are confusing and that the use of phones ‘‘appeared to be commonplace and accepted’’ by some employees. It suggested phone usage could be a distraction and asserted that employees used phones inappropriately.

Szabo said there was no finding that train crews were using cellphones and there was no evidence the deadly derailment or the other accidents had anything to do with phones.

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