Safety officials urge closer rail inspections

Hartford - Federal transportation safety officials on Monday urged closer track inspections after finding that inspectors may have failed to spot a broken part two days before a derailment and collision that injured scores of passengers in Connecticut last year.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration require all railroads to inspect each main track by vehicle or on foot at least once every two weeks.

Current track safety standards exempt commuter railroads in urban areas from traversing each track by foot or vehicle during an inspection. The board recommended that the railroad agency remove that exemption and that Metro-North, the railroad involved in the accident, stop relying on it.

The Federal Railroad Administration said it has begun a "comprehensive review" of track safety standards that will address the recommendations. A spokesman did not have information on what specifically is exempted.

A Metro-North train heading east from New York City's Grand Central Terminal to New Haven derailed just outside Bridgeport on May 17, 2013. It was hit by a train heading west from New Haven.

Federal transportation officials said a broken rail joint bar may not have been visible from a vehicle used in the inspection two days before.

"We remain concerned about the practice of inspecting adjacent track without traversing it, either on foot or with inspection vehicles, on a periodic basis," NTSB said in its safety recommendation.

A spokeswoman for Metro-North said the commuter rail line already does twice-weekly inspections so the recommendation would not change the frequency of inspections.

Investigators found that joint bars attached to two tracks of different sizes were broken, the NTSB said. Metro-North records indicate the inspection was most likely performed from a different track.

As a result, the rail with the broken joint would not have been visible during the inspection, the safety board said.

In addition, four tracks were to be inspected simultaneously by two track inspectors riding in a vehicle along the rail, the agency said. Metro-North track inspectors told NTSB investigators that when they evaluated two outside tracks, including the track with the broken joint, "they had to rush."

"The NTSB believes that both gradual deterioration and rapid failures can create serious hazards and the probability of detecting these hazards is substantially reduced when multiple tracks are being inspected simultaneously," the agency said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, and chairman of a Senate subcommittee on surface transportation, urged Metro-North and other commuter rail lines to immediately adopt the recommendations.

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