Crash investigations take time


To the editor:

This letter is in response to the March 5 editorial “Metro-North must modernize,” in which the NTSB is criticized for the length of time its investigations take and the recent safety recommendations issued following the Dec. 1, 2013 Metro-North derailment.

I’d like to provide your readers some context about how an NTSB investigation unfolds and how safety improvements are recommended.

Our investigators take a thorough look not only at “what” happened during an accident but “why.” Oftentimes finding out the “why” may require looking at equipment, materials, metallurgical properties, sight lines, survivable space, an organization’s safety culture, training regimen, operating rules, human factors such as fatigue, cell phone use, medical issues, work schedule and a myriad of other issues. But all of this thoroughness takes time.

A typical major accident investigation takes around 12 months, but we can issue safety recommendations at any time if we identify a safety concern, as we did recently in the Metro-North derailment. 

We can also issue urgent safety recommendations which require an immediate response when we feel it is necessary during an investigation, which we did following the May Metro-North track worker fatality in Bridgeport, Ct. last May. 

We may uncover safety issues which extend beyond the accident property to other railroads or the regulator, but we don’t wait to act on those concerns.

Also, parties to the investigation, which include Metro-North Railroad and the Federal Railroad Administration, are participating in investigative activities and have full access to information. 

I have met with both the current and former Metro-North presidents and encouraged them to implement needed safety improvements identified through investigative activities or their own analysis as soon as possible. Their improvements, in conjunction with our long-standing recommendations — such as implementing positive train control — which is on our most wanted list of transportation safety improvements for 2014, coupled with the recommendations issued during the course of the investigation, ensure safety is not delayed waiting for our final report.

Deborah A.P. Hersman
Chair, National 
Transportation Safety Board