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.  

“Push-Pull” Trains Questioned After Metro-North Wreck

Whether operation of trains by locomotives pushing rather than pulling the cars is totally safe has come into question after the fatal Metro-North train wreck that killed 4 passengers and injured many others on December 1. The train consisted of 8 cars and a dual-mode diesel and electric locomotive, which was pushing the cars from the rear.  According to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer and Patrick McGeehan in The New York Times (Dec. 2), rail-safety experts have at times questioned the performance of this type of train in the event of derailment, speculating that accidents were made more severe by the pushing force from the rear.

Of the commuter railroads in the New York area, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road use push-pull operation sparingly and mostly for trains the operate beyond the limits of electrification.  These lines use all-electric “multiple-unit” equipment, in which there is no separate locomotive, for most services where electrification is available.  The two railroads have been reequipping their electric car fleet in recent years.

In contrast, NJ Transit has chosen not to order new electric cars and increasingly is using locomotive-powered push-pull trains to provide service on all lines, even the electrified ones.  Critics have said that NJT is even stalling on rehabilitating electric cars damaged in Superstorm Sandy.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent of Metro-North, defended the use of push-pull equipment, saying that if the National Transportation Safety Board had any reservations, the railroads wouldn’t be allowed to use push-pull trains.  Metro-North intends to install a “positive train control” system in which computers monitor train speed in advance of restrictions such as the sharp curve where the wreck occurred. The status of positive control system installation on NJ Transit is not clear, but NJT had been a leader in positive train control planning and has let several contracts over the past decade to begin installation of the system on its routes.

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MTA Rails Say Safety Deadline Tough

Federal law requires commuter rail operators to implement an advanced safety technology, Positive Train Control (PTC), by 2015.  However, many operating agencies protest that the new technology is expensive, untested, and cannot easily be obtained.  The presidents of the two railroads operated by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro North Railroad (M-N) and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), have protested that they may be unable to meet the deadline.  Howard Permut and Helena Williams, presidents of M-N and LIRR respectively, note that they “make operating a safe and reliable system . . . our absolute priority” and that the lines have already invested over $1 billion on a signaling system “providing a level of security greater than that of many rail systems today.”   In addition, they say, in a joint letter to The New York Times (May 5), to install PTC requires retrofitting 1200 miles of track and more than 1000 rail cars and that much of the technology needed is not yet even developed, let alone approved or in production.  In a follow-up letter to The Times (May 8), the CEOs of the American Public Transportation Association and of the Association of American Railroads emphasized that the railroads do not seek to delay implementing the new technology because of the costs involved; instead, they wrote, the technology simply won’t be ready in time for the 2015 deadline.

We do not have information on PTC compliance at NJ Transit; however, NJT is known to have already implemented highly advanced “civil speed enforcement” technology on many lines, and this technology may provide most or all of the features required in the new law.