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Track Worker Death prompts new push for railroad safety

Metro-North worker safety effort launched; NTSB sets fall hearing

Transportation board to discuss recent accidents

Metro-North crews work on realigning the tracks near 183rd Street, July 31, 2013 in the Bronx. After a Metro-North track foreman was struck and killed by a train in Connecticut in May, the railroad has launched a new effort to improve track worker safety. The biggest change will be a system-wide overhaul of how track workers communicate with the rail traffic controllers. / Tania Savayan/The Journal News

Metro-North Railroad has launched a new effort to improve track worker safety, after a track foreman was recently struck and killed by a train in Connecticut.

Robert Luden, 52, was killed after a student rail controller put the track where Luden was working back into service without approval, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

Luden’s death prompted the NTSB to issue a report in June that urged Metro-North to increase protection for track maintenance crews. On Wednesday, the NTSB said the May 28 accident, along with Metro-North’s train derailment on May 17, would be discussed during an investigative hearing in October.

“The No. 1 priority Metro-North has is safe operations for its customers and employees,” Metro-North President Howard Permut said at a railroad meeting last month. “We will make the railroad as absolutely safe as we can.”

Metro-North’s plan to improve worker safety includes overhauling how track workers communicate with rail traffic controllers and testing new procedures for work zones. The four-month pilot program involves setting up physical barriers in work zones and attaching shunts to the track. Shunts are devices with stop signals to alert an approaching train operator of a construction area.

The shunts will only be tested on New Haven Line tracks in Connecticut, where trains don’t use a third rail. Metro-North officials have said using the devices in areas with a third rail pose a danger to workers installing and removing them.

The railroad also is working with a software developer to create a new communication system for Metro-North track workers. Currently, when crews need to work on a track, a supervisor will call or radio the operations control center to get a section of the track shut down. When the work is completed, the supervisor will call or radio again so the track can be reopened.

The new system, set to be implemented later this year, will require track workers to punch in a special code on a pager-like device to confirm the track is safe to open.

“Only when that code relayed back to the (operations control center) can the track be returned to service,” Metro-North spokeswoman Margie Anders said. “This will put control of the work area in the hands of the roadway worker.”

Last month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approved a contract to pay Railware Inc. up to $425,000 to upgrade the agency’s software for the new system.

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