By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal regulators issued an emergency order on Friday requiring the company that operates the New York commuter train involved in the deadly crash last Sunday to implement urgent temporary safety measures.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said it ordered Metro-North Railroad, operator of the train that derailed as it entered a sharp curve in New York's Bronx borough, to take specific, immediate steps to make sure its crews did not exceed speed limits.
Federal investigators have said the early morning train was traveling nearly three times the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit when it left the tracks near the end of its run from Poughkeepsie to New York's Grand Central Station. Four people died in the accident and 70 more were injured.
In its emergency instruction to Metro-North, which runs commuter trains from New York City to other stations in New York state and Connecticut, the FRA ordered the railroad to provide by early next week a "list of main track locations" where a reduction of more than 20 mph is required for passenger trains.
The regulator also ordered the railroad to come up with modifications to its existing control systems, including one that is supposed to automatically apply brakes in some circumstances, to improve mechanisms providing advance warning to engineers about excessive train speed.
As Reuters reported on Wednesday, the train that derailed was equipped with an alert system which was supposed to set off an audible alarm if the engineer did not touch the controls every 25 seconds. However, the alarm system was installed only in the unmanned diesel locomotive which was pushing the train from the rear, and was not installed in the control cab from which engineer William Rockefeller was driving the train.
Rockefeller, 46, told authorities he became dazed and lost focus before the crash. Investigators said data recordings from the derailed train showed the train had been going 82 miles per hour and that brakes were applied only a few seconds before the train went off the rails.
The FRA said that by the end of December, Metro-North must submit to regulators a detailed plan for making necessary signal system modifications.
In the meantime, the agency said, Metro-North must have two qualified operators in the locomotive cab or control cab when trains are traveling through track areas where speeds drop 20 mph or more until signal upgrades are completed.
"While we assist the National Transportation Safety Board in carrying out its investigation, this emergency order will help ensure that other Metro-North trains travel at appropriate, safe speeds," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
In an emailed statement, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North as well as other New York City and suburban transport links, including New York subways and buses and the Long Island Railroad, said it would comply with the federal instruction.
"The MTA is working closely with the Federal Railroad Administration to review our policies and procedures in light of Sunday's tragic derailment, and we will of course comply with whatever requirements the FRA directs us to follow," the agency said. "We are examining many other possible steps we can take to improve the safety of our railroad operations, and will continue making every effort to enhance customer and employee safety."
The head of the drivers' labor union, ACRE, had not seen the FAA's order but backed the concept of more safety measures. "Anything that makes the railroad safer is a good thing," said Anthony Bottalico, ACRE's general chairman.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; additional reporting by Chris Francescani in New York; editing by Gunna Dickson)