Safety Board Reports on Crash Investigation

The National Transportation Safety Board’s on-site team investigating the December 1 fatal crash on Metro-North Railroad has completed its initial work and has returned to Washington; it may return to gather additional information.  On December 9, it released a report on progress so far:  Inspection of the train that crashed has uncovered no mechanical anomalies; no problems were found in the track or signal systems, either. The investigation included shop testing of critical safety equipment.  The team inspected the “dead man switch”, a foot pedal that the engineer must keep depressed to allow the train to keep moving; no problems were found.  Inspection of the tracks in the vicinity of the crash revealed no visibility problems.

Since no mechanical problems have been found, the NTSB believes that the accident would have been prevented had “positive train control” (PTC) technology been in service on the railroad; the NTSB has long favored installation of PTC, which requires the engineer to slow the train to an appropriate speed when approaching restricted areas, such as the low-speed curve where the train crashed.  The team also interviewed all crew members of the train that crashed, and reported that all have been cooperative and reported a normal run until shortly before the “derailment sequence”.  Drug test results and inspection of cellphone records are still pending.

In an interesting new development, investigators interviewed the engineer of a train that passed the ill-fated southbound train at 7:11 a.m., just minutes before the crash.  (The other train was likely to be the 6:43 a.m. departure from Grand Central Terminal for Poughkeepsie.)  That engineer reported that the headlight on the train which crashed minutes later was not dimmed by its engineer as it passed; railroad regulations require trains to dim their headlights when meeting.  This observation would reinforce the hypothesis that the engineer of the train that crashed was inattentive before the incident.

Additional tasks the team will undertake include interviews with first responders and with passengers who survived the crash; the team also plans to take three-dimensional scans of the damaged train equipment, in order to make detailed measurements and to digitally re-create the crash sequence.