Well over a year before its string of death and derailment, Metro North was subjected to the first Federal Rail Safety Act whistleblower jury trial in the nation, Barati v Metro North. During that trial, cross examination of the Heads of Metro North’s Safety, Training, and Track Departments exposed the disconnect between the Railroad’s window dressing safety policies and the profoundly unsafe culture of its workplace. The jurors saw how the Railroad–rather than welcome employee reports of safety hazards or injuries as an opportunity to eliminate unsafe conditions through root cause analysis–instead “shoots the messenger” by retaliating against those workers. The result is a profoundly unsafe railroad where hazards are ignored and perpetuated.
The jurors expressed their outrage by awarding $1 million in punitive damages in order to send an unmistakable message that such a culture is not acceptable and will not be tolerated by the public. The federal judge upheld the jury’s punitive damage award, explaining:
Here, the jury registered their measure of reprehensibility to underscore their finding that the Railroad’s conduct was in reckless disregard of Mr. Barati’s safety and FRSA rights. Their conclusion was supported by the evidence that the Railroad singled Barati out for discipline for a safety violation. The jury also had evidence that Metro North’s termination of Barati was contrary to its written policies and FRA regulations, was a self-serving effort to discourage employee injury reporting in order to keep its injury and lost workday statistics low, violated Metro North’s own obligation to accurately report employees’ on-the-job injuries and resulting lost work days, and contravened Metro North’s “safety statement” that “we are committed to the safety of our employees and our customers,” and “we are determined to provide a work environment where all employees work safety.”
But Metro North ignored the jury’s warning. Rather than see the $1 million in punitive damages as a wake up call, Metro North did nothing to shake up the culture of its Safety, Training, or Track Departments, and now is paying an incalculable price.
The findings of the FRA’s recent Deep Dive into the culture of Metro North Railroad are indeed damning:
“an ineffective Safety Department and poor safety culture”
“an ineffective training program”
“a deficient safety culture that has manifested itself in increased risk and reduced safety on Metro North”
But none of this should come as a surprise given that, per capita, Metro North has five times more FRSA violations than any other railroad in the country. In the past five years, OSHA, judges, and juries have ordered punitive damages against Metro North in nine separate cases. But the Railroad ignored those warnings to stop its reckless conduct, and the FRA did nothing to intervene.
Now, the FRA is ordering that “Metro North’s senior leadership must prioritize safety above all else, and communicate and implement that priority throughout Metro North.” A good place to start would be for Metro North to take its violations of the FRSA seriously, but given its record no one should be holding their breath. Lip service to paper policies do nothing to change an entrenched culture. Here is the FRA’s complete Deep Dive Report. For more information on the FRSA, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.