Transportation Safety Board Investigating New York Train Crash

By | February 4, 2015

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the fiery rush-hour crash of a New York commuter train in Westchester County that killed six people, the deadliest accident in Metro-North Railroad’s history.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state agency that runs the line, lowered its death count overnight from seven. Five people on the train died, along with the driver of the vehicle it collided with, according to an e-mail from Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesman. Fifteen people were being treated in hospitals, and seven are in very serious condition, Governor Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday morning on CBS television.

“The third rail of the track came up from the explosion and went right through the car,” Cuomo said last night at a news conference near the scene of the accident. “It is truly a devastatingly ugly situation to see.”

The crash came 14 months after a fatal Metro-North accident in the Bronx, and presented a major obstruction on a transit artery for thousands of workers. On Wednesday, there will be no train service on the Harlem line between North White Plains and Pleasantville, according to the MTA.

Fatal Conflagration

The accident occurred at 6:30 p.m. on a train scheduled to leave Grand Central Station at 5:44 p.m., according to Donovan. The gates came down on a Jeep Cherokee that was stopped on the tracks at Commerce Street in Valhalla, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of Midtown Manhattan.

The vehicle was driven about 400 feet by the hit, and gasoline in the tank burst and ignited the first train car, Cuomo said. The explosion caused the electrified third rail of the track to come up and pierce the train, he said.

“This was as gruesome as I have seen,” Cuomo said on CBS.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators to Westchester County early Wednesday. Board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters before leaving Washington that the team will be on scene for about a week, and determining a cause may take as long as a year.

Trains between Pleasantville and North White Plains will remain suspended “until further notice,” according to a statement posted on the Metro-North website. Limited service for buses and trains will be available for Upper Harlem Line customers, it said.

There will be shuttle trains between Wassaic and Southeast with bus connections to Beacon Station on the Hudson Line for train service to Grand Central. There will be limited train service to Goldens Bridge with bus connections directly to North White Plains Station for trains to Grand Central.

Spuyten Duyvil

In December 2013, a Metro-North train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx, killing four passengers and injuring 63. The engineer in that fatal accident had a sleeping disorder that wasn’t properly monitored, the NTSB said in October.

U.S. investigators said last year that Metro-North lacked “safety culture,” a deficiency similar to the causes of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the 2003 Columbia space shuttle explosion and the 2010 BP Plc oil spill.

Railroad management failed to investigate damaged tracks and follow its own safety protocols, the NTSB said in a report released Nov. 19. The agency examined five incidents that took place from May 2013 to March 2014, including the fatal crash in the Bronx.

Deadly Crossings

The type of intersection where Tuesday’s accident occurred, a so-called grade crossing, has a bloody history.

Six people were killed and 16 were injured when a tractor- trailer failed to stop at a grade crossing and hit an Amtrak passenger train in Miriam, Nevada, in 2011.

The accident prompted NTSB to call on the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Highway Administration to develop a plan to help states improve safety. The administration said in a May 1, 2013, letter to NTSB that it was still working on it.

The MTA is the largest U.S. mass-transit system. It serves an average 8.6 million riders per weekday on the New York City subways and buses as well as Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.

–With assistance from Alan Levin in Washington, Douglas Lytle in London and Freeman Klopott in Albany.

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