Awaiting Answers, Officials Call For Improving Safety At Rail Crossings

Feb 9, 2015

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

Elected officials who toured the train wreckage from last week’s fatal Metro-North crash in Westchester County say there are many questions about the so-called third rail. On Friday, they also toured the crash site, and talked about improving safety at rail crossings. As WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne reports, many questions remain about the deadliest Metro-North accident to date.

Six people died when a Metro-North commuter train February 3 hit an SUV stopped on the tracks at a rail crossing in Valhalla. The driver of the Mercedes SUV was killed; the others were passengers aboard the first car of the Harlem Line train that had erupted into flames. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer says that after seeing the burnt first car of the train, it was like looking into a coffin.

“It’s so sad and gut-wrenching,” says Schumer. “It’s one of the worst experiences I’ve had in elected life.”

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut echoed Schumer’s feelings. One of the five passengers who died was from Danbury, Connecticut. Blumenthal is calling for an accelerated release of preliminary investigative findings.

“There’s a need to maintain and sustain and enhance trust and confidence in Metro-North,” says Blumenthal. “Very simply, trust and confidence is at risk if we don’t have some preliminary findings that will give people an idea of what actually happened here.”

Credit Courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board

He and Schumer expressed concern about the so-called third rail.  He, Schumer, and two congressional representatives spoke at the crash site after viewing the charred wreckage in a warehouse being used by the National Transportation Safety Board. Here’s Schumer.

“First and foremost, how did the third rail detach, pierce the bottom of that first car and end up in that car, 39-foot sections,” says Schumer.

According to NTSB member Robert Sumwalt, the rail split up into 12 of those 39-foot sections, after entering the first car as the train was coming to a stop. Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney also toured the wreckage and crash site.

“And so we may learn when the medical examiner’s completed his work that that fact is critical here, that had the third rail not dislodged and entered the car, we might not have seen the level of fatalities that we saw here,” Maloney says.

Credit Courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board

Schumer said Friday it's not clear whether the rails had lost electricity when they pierced the train. He said even without electricity, they could have killed or maimed people. Sumwalt says that after the collision, the engineer radioed the dispatch center, which shut off power to the third rail. Sumwalt says investigators will take information from the train maintenance recorder and power substation data to determine exactly when the third rail was de-energized. The lawmakers, standing just yards from the Commerce Street crossing, noted the absence of bells at the crossing. Sumwalt confirms there are no audible bells there.

“By regulation, this grade crossing is not required to have bells because there’s no pedestrian walkway there,” says Sumwalt. “The bells are required when we have pedestrian walkways.”

He says NTSB will conduct audio tests to determine how far down the tracks a train horn can be heard. The night of the accident, Sumwalt says the train engineer sounded the horn as he should have approaching a grade crossing, then after hitting the emergency brake, laid on it for another four seconds up to the point of collision. Sumwalt says the NTSB will look into whether bells at grade crossings will increase safety.

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

“Part of our investigation will be to see if putting bells on other grade crossings would improve safety.”

Congresswoman Nita Lowey says she will focus on public education and technology as preventative measures.

“Number one is education,” says Lowey. “Did this woman know that if she had backed up she’d still be here today. And I understand the car in back of her backed up, giving her this option. She didn’t know.”

Lowey is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

“So public education, technology, certainly I intend to work with my colleagues to appropriate the resources so we can hopefully prevent anything like this from ever happening again,” Lowey says.

Again, Schumer.

“I think it’s quick to leap to a conclusion that this was to blame or that was to blame,” says Schumer. “I think the thing to do that will best get at solving this problem and preventing future accidents is waiting for the NTSB to come out with its full report. And they may well find that there should have been more whistles there, they may find there should have been better lighting; they may find the way the third ail is constructed on Metro-North is outdated and needs to be changed. Whatever they recommend, we will follow.”

Sumwalt says NTSB investigators will remain in Westchester for several days before continuing the investigation in Washington, D.C.