Articles Posted in Subway and Train Accidents

The Town of New Castle (Chappaqua), has moved forward with safety improvements at its Roaring Brook Road Metro-North railroad crossing without waiting for federal funding for implementation.  In light of the recent February 3 horrific crash a few miles south at the Commerce Street crossing in Valhalla, in which Edgemont resident and married mother of three Ellen Brody was killed (along with five front car passengers on the northbound Metro North train) when her Mercedes SUV was struck, the issue of railroad crossing safety has become a high priority.

The Roaring Brook Road crossing is one of seventeen railroad crossings in Westchester County, and Putnam County.  Additional railroad crossings are located in Rockland County.  The safest crossings are either tunnels or bridges above the tracks.  However, the cost of such measures can be prohibitive.  The Town of North Castle apparently considered installing an overpass in its development plan in 1963 and again in 1989.  Town officials state that there have been fourteen reported malfunctions of the railroad gates at the Roaring Brook Crossing in the last ten years.  The MTA, responsible for maintenance and operation of the warnings systems, alleges that there have been only nine reported malfunctions in the last five years, but that tests they conducted did not show any defects on those nine occasions.

When gates do not function correctly, the “fail safe” position is that they are supposed to go down and stay in position while the crossing lights remain on.  There have been two reported close calls at the Roaring Brook station this month in which that did not happen.  In one, a Chappaqua resident had to back up quickly when the crossing lights came on and the gates began dropping.  She claims that the train went by five seconds after she got off the tracks; Metro-North states that it was 15 seconds—either way, a very close call.  Earlier in March, a driver from Mount Kisco at the Roaring Brook Station claims she had to break through the gate seconds before a train traveling at 75 miles per hour came into the station.  At that speed, it would take well more than the length of two football fields to stop the train, as the train is travelling at approximately 110 feet per second at 75 miles per hour and it would take several seconds to bring the train to a complete stop.

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On Tuesday, February, an otherwise uneventful day, 49 year old Ellen Brody, the married mother of three teenage children, was returning home from work at a jewelry store in Chappaqua, New York, when she made a fateful decision. Due to traffic from an accident, she took a shortcut as many other drivers did, through a cemetery in Valhalla to get to the Taconic Parkway faster. As she approached the Commerce Street entrance to the southbound Taconic Parkway, the gates came down and the red lights went on to notify drivers that a Metro-North train was approaching. At this time, Ms. Brody’s Mercedes SUV was struck by the gates and she exited her car to examine the damage to the rear of the vehicle, not realizing how little time she actually had to get out of the path of the rapidly approaching train.

For reasons we will never know, Ms. Brody then drove her car a few feet further onto the tracks, rather than rearward, and her car was struck by the northbound 5:44 PM train from Grand Central at approximately 48 mph (after slowing from 58 miles per hour according to investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Ms. Brody, and five passengers in the first car of the train, were killed instantly, the train passengers from the dislodging of the third rail which entered the passenger compartment of the train, causing a huge fire and explosion.

In the wake of this horrific tragedy, many questions must be answered: Why did the accident happen? Was it preventable? Were safety measures available but not implemented? What safety modifications, if any, will be installed? How often do such accidents occur, at this location and at other railroad crossings around the United States?

Since 2003, there have been 260 accidents at railroad crossings in the New York and New Jersey region. 125 such accidents on New Jersey Transit trains (330 grade crossings), 105 railway crossing accidents on the Long Island Railroad (294 grade crossings), and 30 on Metro North (126 grade crossings). These 260 accidents resulted in 73 deaths and 148 injuries.

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On December 1, 2013, an otherwise ordinary early Sunday morning after the Thanksgiving holiday, a southbound Metro North train bound for Grand Central Station from Poughkeepsie derailed just north of the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. The train engineer, William Rockefeller, who had been employed by Metro North for fifteen years, fell asleep at the controls, (or fell into a trance sometimes called “highway hypnosis), allowing the train to hurtle along the tracks at 82 miles per hour in an area where the speed limit is 30 m.p.h. The derailment was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the MTA Police, the NYPD and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office to determine if a crime was committed, but none of these agencies found any basis for criminal charges. The brakes on the train were in working order and a check of Mr. Rockefeller’s phone revealed that he was not texting or using his cell phone prior to the crash. Rockefeller awoke just prior to the derailment and attempted to slow the out of control train to no avail as the train went flying off the tracks. Of the more than 100 passengers on the early morning train, four were killed and more than 80 injured. Mr. Rockefeller’s shift had been switched two weeks earlier from a night to the early morning run starting in Poughkeepsie at 5:04 AM. He was diagnosed with sleep apnea, which certainly contributed significantly to the tragic incident. No drugs or alcohol were found in his system. Continue reading

The tragedy on the southbound Metro North Poughkeepsie train in the Bronx this past Sunday, December 1, 2013, is under investigation by both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the MTA Police, the NYPD and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office to determine if a crime was committed. The train derailment at a wide turn just north of the Spuyten Duyvil station southbound killed four people and injured more than 70, with several critically injured. When it was first reported on Sunday morning, it seemed particularly shocking, as train accidents and derailments are somewhat rare, and fatalities on trains even less likely. The Federal Railroad Administration conducted a study over a ten year period from 2004 to the present which revealed that train incidents and derailments have steadily declined from 4,503 in 2004 to 1,751 to date this year; derailments have decreased from 2,766 in 2004 to 1,053 in 2013; and prior to the December 1st Metro North derailment, there was only one other train fatality in all of 2013.

The train operator, William Rockefeller, is a 15 year veteran of the company, and has been interviewed by NTSB investigators and the MTA police. It has been reported that speed was clearly a factor in the derailment; the train was traveling at 82 miles per hour shortly before the derailment and the speed limit in that location is 30 miles per hour, as there is a wide turn to the left away from the Hudson River. The brakes had apparently been checked by Metro North personnel at approximately 5:00 AM that Sunday morning and “there were no anomalies found”, according to the NTSB spokesman Earl Weener. Further, the brakes have purportedly been examined post accident and appear to have been in working order.

Mr. Rockefeller claims that when he realized that the train was going too fast into the turn, he shut down the throttle, attempted an emergency braking maneuver and braced for the impact. The New York Times reported on December 4 that some trains have an “alerter” system by which an alarm will sound if inactivity is detected, and if the operator does not respond by pushing a pedal within 15 seconds, the brakes will automatically be applied. Unfortunately, the diesel train involved in the accident was not equipped with the alerter system.

It was reported by the Journal News that blood tests have come back negative for alcohol. Drug tests are pending. A law enforcement spokesperson who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation stated that the preliminary examination of Mr. Rockefeller’s phone does not show that he was texting or on a call when the train derailed.

The issue of sleep, or the lack thereof, appears to be the most likely cause of the accident. There are reports as of the writing of this article that Mr. Rockefeller may have “dozed off” just prior to the accident, and experienced something similar to what is known as “highway hypnosis”, by which the driver goes into a dream state and is not focused on the road or track ahead of him. It is notable that two weeks before the accident, Rockefeller’s schedule was changed from the night shift to the early morning run. Thus, beginning in Poughkeepsie at 5:04 AM, and starting the train at 5:54 AM, was a significant change in schedule for Mr. Rockefeller. Why this schedule change was made is unknown at this time. A union spokesman for the Association of Commuter Rail Employees claimed that the change in Mr. Rockefeller’s hours could be related to the “circadian rhythm with respect to sleep.” Circadian rhythms involve the body’s “clock regulated mechanisms over a 24 hour period which are affected by light and heat, among other factors.

Ironically and tragically, there is technology known as “positive train control” which could have prevented the derailment. Before the train left the station, a computer would download a “physical characteristics file” which includes all details of the route such as curves, speed limits, and track work, and assisted by GPS and WiFi, the train’s engineer would be advised of any issues or changes. If the train was going at an excessive rate of speed, positive train control would inform the engineer to slow down. If he did not respond promptly, the system would automatically apply the brakes. In 2008, Congress passed legislation mandating positive train control by 2015 in commuter and freight rail lines. The MTA is apparently in the process of developing the system for Metro North and the Long Island Rail Road, awarding almost half a billion dollars to various contractors. However, the system is still more than one year from being mandated, and in fact, the MTA is now requesting an extension until 2018, stating that installing positive train control in 1000 cars and 1,200 miles of track will be a substantial endeavor that can’t be completed by 2015.

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