Fatal Metro North Accident–Why Did It Happen and Can Future Accidents Be Prevented?

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.

There was a previous accident at the Commerce Street location in 1984.  In that 1984 accident, 21 year old Gerard Dunne, a cable technician, was driving his truck on his way to a new job, also during the evening rush hour, when his vehicle was struck by an oncoming train which was obscured by foliage. There were no gates at the time, and the accident, which caused Mr. Dunne’s death three weeks later, resulted in the installation of the crossing gates and lights which are now at the Commerce Street crossing. A wrongful death lawsuit by Mr. Dunne’s family was settled with Metro North for an undisclosed amount.

Around the United States, railroad crossing accidents have generally declined for the last ten years, from 3,085 accidents which caused 371 fatalities in 2004 to 2,096 crashes in 2013 leading to 288 deaths in 2013. These statistics are somewhat skewed by the fact that through 2011, the FRA used to include suicides in its calculations of accidents, whereas now suicides are now a separate statistic. However, it is notable that in the New York area, after 26 accidents in 2004, and dropping for several years, in 2013, there were 28 railroad crossing accidents.

Specifically with regard to Metro North accidents, the crossing which is statistically the most dangerous since 2003 is at the Riverbend Drive South Crossing, were there have been five accidents with four injuries and no fatalities for that eleven year period. According to “Operation Lifesaver”, a rail safety group, every three hours a person or vehicle is struck by a train in the U.S.

Apparently, there have been complaints over the years from local Valhalla residents that there is not sufficient time between the lowering of the gates and the arrival of the approaching train. In fact, the Associated Press reported on February 6th that $126,000 had been earmarked in 2009 for the installation of a third warning light, but it appears that that money was earmarked for other projects. Clearly, that issue will be closely investigated in light of the February 3rd tragedy. Further, there is now technology, although implementation is some years away, called “positive train control”, which is supposed to alert engineers of obstructions on the tracks.

Other safety measures which are available, but not present at Commerce Street, are a wall that can rise from the street, blocking access to the tracks; steel posts that rise out of the ground obstructing access; four quadrant gate systems, which make it much more difficult to drive around them, or constructing overpasses or underpasses. However, these are all expensive measures costing at minimum over one million dollars, and listening to Gov. Cuomo this week, it is apparent that these measures will be not be under consideration due to the cost.

In this accident, there is still a question as to whether the positive train control technology would have provided the engineer with sufficient time to bring the train to a stop. A train moving at 58 miles per hour is proceeding at 85 feet per second. According to the National Safety Council, a light rail train moving at 55 m.p.h would take about 600 feet, or the length of two football fields, to come to a stop. Investigators believe that the Metro North train in this accident stopped in about 650 feet. Compare this with a car, which under ideal conditions (tires and brakes in good condition and dry roads), could come to an emergency stop from 55 m.ph. in about 200 feet.

Contact the personal injury attorneys at the Bronx and White Plains Law Office of Mark A. Siesel online or toll free at 888-761-7633 if you or a family member are in a railroad accident, or suffer serious injuries in a construction accident, car crash, truck accident, or motorcycle accident, for a free initial consultation to discuss your case in detail. We will fight the insurance companies and their counsel from the inception of the case to trial to maximize your compensation for your physical and mental injuries, past, present and future medical and hospital expenses, past and future lost earnings, and loss of enjoyment of life.