Our investigation found that on average, every eight weeks for a year and a half, a Metro North engineer operated a commuter train so unsafely it led to their suspension and a temporary loss of their certification to operate a train.
In the 18 months leading up to the fatal derailment, Metro North engineers racked up repeated safety violations that could have led to collisions. Documents we've obtained through Freedom of Information show the railroad suspended 10 engineers for up to 61 days for serious safety infractions. Nine of the engineers were suspended for "Passing through a red stop signal'.
'Someone should have been alerted and said we have to do something," said former federal rail nspector James Sottile.
The former supervising inspector for the Railroad Administration says nine red light violations is an unusually high number considering that each one is a potential accident:
"That's how serious the red light violations are. The potential for disaster is in everyone," said Sottile.
Seven of the nine red light infractions took place at Grand Central Station where trains move at slow speeds; even so, a collision there could be serious.
"They could side-collide and cause many injuries to passengers on board," said Sottile.
Two violations took place on main rail lines. In this case, the engineer on the New Haven Line received a 30 day suspension after he passed through a stop signal while switching onto another track.
"Had another train been coming?" we asked.
"The obvious, there would have been a collision and a loss of life," said Sottile.
The union representing Metro North engineers says most of the signal violations took place "at slow speeds and without damage or injury."
The union's General Chairman adding that they are working with the railroad ''to reduce these violations going forward."
No signal violation was involved in the fatal Metro North derailment, but human error on the part of a drowsy engineer has been blamed. These 10 suspensions leading up to the derailment, experts tell us, were red flags that should have alerted the railroad to serious training problems.
"There's an unsafe culture involved here if an engineer repeatedly get involved in red signal violations. It indicates an overriding culture that is not geared toward safe operations," said Sottile
In response to our investigation, an MTA spokesman says riding Metro-North is far safer than driving a car.
He adds that the agency is cooperating fully with the Federal Railroad Administration in its extensive review of Metro-North's safety practices and procedures.
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