Train hurtling almost 3 times speed limit
YONKERS, N.Y. — A commuter train that derailed during the weekend, killing four passengers, was traveling at 82 mph as it entered a 30-mph curve, a federal investigator said on Monday.
But whether the wreck was the result of human error or mechanical trouble was unclear, he said.
Rail experts said the tragedy might have been prevented if Metro-North Railroad had installed automated crash-avoidance technology that safety authorities have been urging for decades.
The locomotive's speed was extracted from the train's two data recorders in the Sunday morning accident, which happened in the Bronx along a bend so sharp that the speed limit drops from 70 mph to 30 mph.
Asked why the train was going so fast, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said: “That's the question we need to answer.”
Weener would not disclose what the engineer operating the train told investigators, and he said results of drug and alcohol tests were not available. Investigators are examining the engineer's cellphone, apparently to determine whether he was distracted.
“When I heard about the speed, I gulped,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
The engineer, William Rocke-feller, was injured and “is totally traumatized by everything that has happened,” said Anthony Bottalico, executive director of the rail employees union.
He said Rockefeller, 46, was cooperating fully with investigators.
“He's a sincere human being with an impeccable record that I know of. He's diligent and competent,” Bottalico said. Rockefeller has been an engineer for about 11 years and a Metro-North employee for about 20, he said.
Outside Rockefeller's modest house in Germantown, N.Y., police told reporters that at the request of the family, anyone who trespassed would be arrested. Calls to the home went unanswered.
Weener sketched a scenario that suggested that the train's throttle was let up and the brakes were fully applied way too late to stave off disaster.
He said the throttle went to idle six seconds before the derailed train came to a complete stop — “very late in the game” for a train going that fast — and the brakes were fully engaged five seconds before the train stopped.
It takes about a quarter-mile to a half-mile to stop a train going 82 mph, said Kevin Thompson, Federal Railroad Administration spokesman.
Asked whether the tragedy was the result of human error or faulty brakes, Weener said: “The answer is, at this point in time, we can't tell.”
He said investigators are not aware of problems with the brakes during the nine stops the train made before the derailment.
The wreck occurred two years before the federal government's deadline for Metro-North and other railroads to install automatic-slowdown technology designed to prevent catastrophes caused by human error.
Metro-North's parent agency and other railroads have pressed the government to extend Congress' 2015 deadline a few years because of the cost and complexity of the Positive Train Control system, which uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or going the wrong way.
Steve Ditmeyer, a former FRA official who teaches at Michigan State University, said the technology would have monitored the brakes and would not have allowed the train in Sunday's tragedy to exceed the speed limit.
“A properly installed PTC system would have prevented this train from crashing,” he said. “If the engineer would not have taken control of slowing the train down, the PTC system would have.”
On Sunday, the train was about half full, with about 150 people aboard, when it ran off the rails about 7:20 a.m. while rounding a bend where the Harlem and Hudson rivers meet. The lead car landed inches from the water. In addition to the four people killed, more than 60 were injured.
Seven victims were still in intensive care at one hospital, and two patients were reported in critical condition at another.
The injured included five police officers who were heading to work, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on NBC's “Today” show that he thinks speed will turn out to be a factor in a crash he called “your worst nightmare.”
The train was configured with its locomotive pushing from the back instead of pulling at the front. Weener said that is common, and a train's brakes work the same way no matter where the locomotive is. Ditmeyer said the locomotive's location has virtually no effect on train safety.
The dead New Yorkers were identified as Donna L. Smith, 54, of Newburgh; James G. Lovell, 58, of Cold Spring; James M. Ferrari, 59, of Montrose; and Ahn Kisook, 35, of Queens.
Lovell, an audio technician who had worked the “Today” show and other NBC programs, was traveling to Manhattan to work on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, longtime friend Janet Barton said. The tree-lighting ceremony is Wednesday night.
“He always had a smile on his face and was quick to share a friendly greeting,” ‘‘Today” executive producer Don Nash said in a message to staffers.
The NTSB has been urging railroads for decades to install Positive Train Control technology. In 2008, Congress required dozens of railroads, including Metro-North, to do so by 2015.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North, awarded $428 million in contracts in September to develop the system for Metro-North and its sister Long Island Rail Road.
But the MTA has asked for an extension to 2018, saying it faces technological and other hurdles in installing such a system across more than 1,000 rail cars and 1,200 miles of track.
“This incident, if anything, heightens the importance of additional safety measures like that one,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, which is also served by Metro-North. “I'd be very loath to be more flexible or grant more time.”
MTA spokeswoman Margie Anders said the agency began planning for a PTC system as soon as the law was put into effect.
“It's not a simple, off-the-shelf solution,” she said.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Fires at black churches stir worst fears amid relative calm
- Justice to investigate airlines over seat restrictions, ticket prices
- Obama: U.S. embassy in Havana marks ‘new chapter’ in Cuba ties
- Official: Fire at South Carolina black church wasn’t arson
- Advocate pushes IRS on nonprofits’ tax forms
- Civil rights groups welcome Supreme Court ruling on housing discrimination
- U.S., Cuba to announce plan to open embassies
- Shark attacks spike in Carolinas
- New York prison chief, 11 employees put on leave in escape
- NSA resumes collection of phone data
- Security planners work on cyber defense strategies at U.S. Army War College