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Metro-North railroad puts speed ahead of safety: regulator

Twisted railroad tracks are seen at the site of a Metro-North train derailment in New York, in this still image from video taken by the Nati
Twisted railroad tracks are seen at the site of a Metro-North train derailment in New York, in this still image from video taken by the Nati

By Chris Francescani

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Metro-North Railroad, the second-largest U.S. commuter rail line serving an estimated 83 million riders annually in the New York metro area, has an "overemphasis of on-time performance" ahead of safety, according to a federal review released on Friday.

The far-reaching probe by the Federal Railroad Administration was prompted by a derailment on Metro-North's Hudson line that killed four people and wounded 70 in December 2013. The incident prompted the railroad's then-president Howard Permut to step down in January.

The rail report, "Operation Deep Dive," detailed three other accidents in 2013, that killed one and injured 50, some seriously.

"The findings of Operation Deep Dive demonstrate that Metro-North has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure," the report said. "This is a severe assessment and it is intended as an urgent call to action to Metro-North's leadership."

Metro-North's new president, Joseph Giulietti, acknowledged at a press conference in New York City's Grand Central Station on Friday that the railroad is ready to embrace the report's findings.

"Safety was not the top priority," he said. "It must be. And it will be."

"I will not allow any Metro-North trains to run unless I'm confident they will run safely," said Giulietti, according to a statement released after the press conference.

The Metro-North president also acknowledged systemic problems plaguing the railroad and said he would address each of the issues raised in the wide-ranging and highly critical federal report.

"Again, there is a problem with the culture. As I've learned in the last month, it's not just a problem with one or two departments. Culture develops over years. And it will take time to change culture as well," Giulietti said.

The report requires Metro-North, a subsidiary of New York state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to submit plans within 60 days to improve employee training and safety on the rail line.

Metro-North carries commuters between Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal and the northern suburbs of the city as well as serving communities along Long Island Sound as far as New Haven, Connecticut.

(Reporting by Chris Francescani; editing by Scott Malone, G Crosse and Gunna Dickson)