More than a dozen current and former MTA staffers were indicted Monday in connection with a sweeping 2014 scandal at the Metro-North Railroad that involved cheating on exams, authorities say.
The nine conductors and four engineers were all charged with impairing the integrity of a government licensing examination, a felony, for allegedly emailing photos of several different versions of Metro-North safety tests to other candidates, prosecutors said.
The candidates must pass the exams in order to become licensed locomotive engineers or train conductors with the railroad. The tests are designed to evaluate candidates’ knowledge of braking controls, emergency procedures, train traffic signals, speed limits, and the physical characteristics of various Metro-North lines and stations, among other things.
Engineers are also required to pass several tests as part of a triennial re-certification process.
In one of the cheating instances, a suspect allegedly accessed the conductor exam and recorded a portion of it with his cellphone while an instructor was out of the room, then emailed the recorded test to several of his classmates, according to the indictment. In another case, an engineer candidate allegedly emailed photos of complete answer sheets to an engineer who had not yet completed the required three-year re-certification process tests, authorities said.
Ultimately, prosecutors say eight different tests administered at Grand Central Terminal were wrongfully obtained and distributed between November 2011 and May 2014. They have all since been replaced.
One Metro-North engineer who asked not to be identified for fear of employment retaliation told the I-Team last year that when he was a recent trainee, he witnessed a testing session where instructors left the room for 30 to 40 minutes while students filled in answers, opening the door for potential cheating, he said.
"This was during an exam," he said. "You have 10 or 12 students in a room and everybody is just saying, ‘Hey what did you get for A?’ ‘What did you get for 2?’ Nobody is monitoring."
"Anyone can cheat," he added.
In a statement, the MTA said none of the 13 staffers charged Monday had been in passenger service since the agency was notified they would be arrested. No part of the alleged cheating hurt the safety of the railroad, the statement said.
"Safety is Metro-North Railroad’s highest priority, and the railroad is committed to rooting out any activities that fall short of the highest standards," the statement said.
The MTA said that when it first learned of the allegations a year ago, it brought in the MTA Police Department and the MTA Inspector General to investigate. While the agencies were probing the allegations, the MTA disbanded one class of conductor trainees and extended the training of other conductor and locomotive engineer trainees, the transit agency said. Metro-North also began overhauling its testing protocols.
"While these allegations are extremely disturbing, Metro-North is confident that the railroad is safe for its customers and employees, and that every engineer and conductor is competent and qualified to do their jobs," the statement from the MTA said.