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.