Metro-North and Railroad Regulators Are Criticized on Safety- a “horror house of negligence, resulting in injury, mayhem and even death.”

Metro-North and Railroad Regulators Are Criticized on Safety- a “horror house of negligence, resulting in injury, mayhem and even death.”

A group led by Christopher A. Hart, far left, delivered a blistering critique of Metro-North Railroad and railroad regulators on Tuesday. Other members of the group were Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, at the lectern; Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut; and Sen. Chris Murphy, also a Connecticut Democrat.CreditOzier Muhammad/The New York Times

Three senators and a top federal safety official delivered a blistering critique on Tuesday of theMetro-North Railroad and regulators in Washington for lapses in maintenance and oversight that led to five accidents that killed six people in less than a year.

Led by Christopher A. Hart, the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the group discussed findings on the probable causes of the accidents, including a derailment that left four commuters dead in the Bronx in December. In that crash, an engineer had dozed off, causing his train to career into a sharp curve at over 80 miles per hour, the safety board said.

Mr. Hart said the engineer, William Rockefeller, had subsequently received a diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that can cause fatigue and drowsiness. The safety board had been calling for 12 years for the screening of train operators for sleep disorders, Mr. Hart said, but had been ignored by Metro-North’s primary regulator, the Federal Railroad Administration.

That was far from the harshest criticism aimed at the railroad administration at a news conference held inside Grand Central Terminal, in Manhattan.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, called the administration “essentially a lawless agency, a rogue agency” that was “too captive” to the industry and “much too deferential” to the owners of railroads. Senator Chris Murphy, another Connecticut Democrat, said the railroad administration seemed “more interested in facilitating the cutting of corners” than assuring the safety of rail passengers and workers.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said the safety board’s reports on the five episodes revealed a “horror house of negligence, resulting in injury, mayhem and even death.”

One report covered the death of a Metro-North electrician who was struck by a train on March 10 while trying to restore power to tracks in Manhattan. A track foreman for the railroad was killed in May 2013 when he was struck by a train traveling 70 m.p.h. while he was working on tracks in West Haven, Conn. The other accidents were derailments that resulted in dozens of injuries, but no deaths.

Asked to respond, a spokesman for the administration in Washington issued a statement that said, in part, “The Federal Railroad Administration is committed to being as transparent as possible about its responses to the N.T.S.B. recommendations.” It said that the process it used to respond to mandates from Congress was “how we have driven continuous safety improvement that has reduced accidents by nearly 50 percent over the past decade.”

Mr. Hart and the senators did not spare Metro-North or the agency that runs it, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, from blame, though the senators applauded the authority for hiring a safety board official, David Mayer, this week to be its chief safety officer.

The group said the railroad’s managers had deferred scheduled maintenance and sacrificed safety while placing inordinate emphasis on keeping the trains running on time.

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“Two accidents on one railroad in a short period of time may be a coincidence,” Mr. Hart said. But he added that five accidents on one railroad in less than a year raised the question: “How important was safety at Metro-North?”

He said the safety board would hold a public meeting on Nov. 19 to discuss the five accidents and the elements they had in common.

Metro-North runs from Grand Central into New York City’s northern suburbs and Connecticut. The railroad’s new president, Joseph Giulietti, said it had already started to put in place more than 85 percent of the safety recommendations it had received since the deadly Dec. 1 crash near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx.

Mr. Giulietti said Metro-North was a “good” railroad that was on its way to being “great” again. He declined to discuss what had gone wrong at Metro-North, which just a few years ago was considered one of the safest, best-managed railroads in the world. He said that safety was now the top priority at the railroad and that its entire staff was learning from past errors.

“A mistake is a tragedy when you don’t learn from it,” Mr. Giulietti said.

He also declined to say how much the safety enhancements had cost the transportation authority so far, but he said its board had approved every request for spending to make the railroad safer.

Mr. Schumer said the accidents had caused $28 million in damages, along with the loss of lives and more than 125 injuries. That amount does not include the liability the authority faces in lawsuits, including those filed by families of the four passengers killed in the Dec. 1 crash.

Jeffrey P. Chartier, a lawyer for Mr. Rockefeller, said the safety board’s findings buttressed his position that his client was not responsible for the crash, even though the train he operated was traveling at 82 m.p.h. into a curve with a speed limit of 30.

“The N.T.S.B. findings support the fact that Billy was not negligent or criminally responsible for this tragedy,” Mr. Chartier said. “It was an unanticipated and unavoidable tragedy, which he had no control over.”

Mr. Chartier said Mr. Rockefeller’s sleep apnea had not been diagnosed until after the crash. He said his client remained suspended from his job.

Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration adopted a policy, since deferred, that would have required obese pilots to be tested for sleep apnea, because obese people are prone to the condition. That policy has stirred controversy among pilots’ unions.

Even after Mr. Rockefeller fell asleep at the switch, the crash could have been prevented if Metro-North had used a technology it recommended, known as positive train control, that would have automatically kept the train’s speed within preset limits, Mr. Hart said.