Bloomberg News

Metro-North Train in Wreck Speeding Almost 3 Times Limit

December 02, 2013

NYC Train Derailment

Viewed from Manhattan, first responders and others work at the scene of a derailed Metro North passenger train in the Bronx borough of New York City on Dec. 1, 2013. Photographer: Craig Ruttle/AP Photo

The Metro-North Railroad commuter train that derailed just north of Manhattan, killing four people, was traveling almost three times the speed limit, federal investigators said.

Data recorders recovered from the wreckage show that the seven-car express train bound for Grand Central Terminal was moving at 82 miles (132 kilometers) per hour on a curve with a 30 mph maximum yesterday morning, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener told reporters.

The crash, where the Harlem River joins the Hudson, caused the first passenger fatalities in Metro-North’s 30-year history, the railroad said. Two women and two men died, and 63 were hurt. It isn’t clear yet whether mechanical failure or human error was to blame, Weener said at a briefing in Yonkers.

“This was a tricky turn on the system, but it’s a turn that’s been there for decades and trains negotiate it all day long, so it’s not about the turn,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said today on NBC’s “Today” show. “I think it’s going to turn out to be about speed more than anything and the operator’s operation of the train at that time.”

Related: Driver Said to Have Lost Focus Before Crash

Data recorders show the locomotive’s throttle was cut to idle six seconds before the crash, Weener said. One second later, brake pressure was fully applied. The straightaway leading to the curve had a 70 mph speed limit, he said.

Nine Stops

“This train made nine stops prior to the unrailing,” Weener said. “We need to understand how the system was working throughout the trip.” He said investigators weren’t aware of “any problems or anomalies with the brakes.”

The engineer, William Rockefeller, was injured and hospitalized, according to a person familiar with the accident’s details. Drug and alcohol tests on Rockefeller were being analyzed, and his mobile telephone was inspected to see if he was using it at the time, Weener said.

Before becoming a locomotive engineer about 15 years ago, Rockefeller, 46, worked in the stationmaster’s office as an administrative clerk who posted train schedules in Grand Central Terminal, said Tony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, the union representing Metro-North train operators.

Smooth Commute

“He has an impeccable work record, he’s well-liked by his co-workers and he’s trusted,” Bottalico said in a telephone interview. “There is nothing that can be construed as accurate as causation at this point. Anything being reported right now is conjecture and it’s unfair to everyone involved.”

Metro-North’s third crash in a year brought new attention to passenger safety on the railroad, which carries an average of 280,000 riders each weekday, second only to the Long Island Rail Road, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

The NTSB, which is investigating the two earlier Metro-North accidents, will be on site for seven to 10 days, Weener said at an earlier briefing.

Today’s commute went smoothly even with service suspended between Yonkers and Grand Central. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the railroad, provided shuttle buses between Yonkers and the 242nd Street terminus of the 1 subway. Amtrak’s Empire Service, whose tracks parallel the Hudson Line, remained in operation.

Peter Macarthur, 43, a commercial banker, took the train from Dobbs Ferry and caught the shuttle from Yonkers to 242nd street, for a 30-minute trip.

Well Prepared

“There were tons of buses” in Yonkers, said Peter Macarthur, 43, a commercial banker who took the train from Dobbs Ferry. “It seems well prepared.”

The four dead were identified as Donna L. Smith, a 54-year-old paralegal from Newburgh, New York; James G. Lovell, 58, a media consultant from Cold Spring, New York; James M. Ferrari, 59, of Montrose, New York; and Kisook Ahn, 35, a nurse from Queens. Three bodies were found outside the train, said Edward Kilduff, chief of the New York fire department. Of the injured, 11 were in serious condition, he said.

Lovell, father of three teenage boys and an adult daughter from a previous marriage, worked for the “Today” show and was married to Philipstown Councilwoman Nancy Montgomery. The town of 10,000 is about 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of New York City along the Hudson River.

“A part of this community has been turned upside down today,” Richard Shea, the town supervisor, said in a telephone interview.

’Invincible’

Lovell had survived open heart surgery and cancer, though that didn’t deter him from teaching his boys how to high-dive at a nearby lake, Shea said. “I remember thinking at the time that the guy was invincible.”

Lovell’s son, Finn, wrote on his Twitter feed after learning of his father’s death, “I wasn’t the son of a ’victim.’ I was the son of Jim Lovell. I hope to be even half the man he was. I am so blessed and proud of you, Dad.”

Donna Smith’s uncle, Charles Hahn of Newburgh, remembered his niece in a telephone interview as “a really good person. She did things like cancer walks, Habitat for Humanity, Girl Scouts, things like that.”

Ahn, a native of South Korea, moved to the U.S. in 2008 as part of New York-based Lehman College’s exchange program with Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul. She recently completed a master’s degree in the family-nurse practitioner program at Lehman after earning an accelerated bachelor’s degree in 2009, according to a statement from the school.

Children’s Hospital

Ahn worked at Sunshine Children’s Home and Rehab Center in Ossining, New York, according to Linda Mosiello, an administrator for the center.

“Kisook was a wonderful nurse,” Mosiello said in a telephone interview. “She loved the children here and she loved the work she did, and the staff and children loved her back.”

The NTSB has about 20 investigators assigned to four teams examining signals, mechanical equipment, train workers’ actions and the train’s interior. The latter team will “try to identify how people were injured or killed,” Weener said.

The MTA righted the train’s locomotive and needs to do the same with the remaining seven cars before returning them to the track. Several hundred feet of track must be repaired, said Aaron Donovan, an agency spokesman.

Rescue workers used airbags and other devices to lift train cars to gain access to and search for victims who lay injured or dead underneath the wreckage, said Marjorie Anders, an MTA spokeswoman.

Detective Work

Unlike on an airplane, Metro-North passengers don’t have assigned seats, making investigators dependent on witness interviews to determine victims’ location and how they incurred injury, said Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director, who is now a senior vice president at O’Neill & Associates, a Washington public relations firm.

“You’ve got to find out where they were and where they ended up; it’s just basic detective work,” Goelz said.

Two event recorders, known as black boxes, were retrieved from the cab car at the front and the locomotive, which pushed the train from its rear.

The accident could have been prevented through technology called positive-train control, which automatically applies the brake, even when an operator fails to do so, said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a Washington advocacy group.

“If the brake system was working, it absolutely is PTC-preventable because PTC would’ve enforced the speed limit,” Capon said in an interview.

2015 Deadline

Railroads face a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline to install the technology to comply with a 2008 law, passed after a Metrolink commuter-rail crash in Los Angeles. Railroads have complained about the cost and sought a delay.

The MTA, the biggest U.S. transit agency, employs 66,000 workers, has a $13 billion budget and carries 8.5 million riders a day on subways, buses and commuter railroads. It’s been plagued by deficits for years, which officials have battled with biennial fare and toll increases alongside a cost-cutting plan that began in 2010 and is set to pare more than $1 billion from the operating budget by 2017. Last year, Hurricane Sandy floodwaters caused about $5 billion in damage to its system.

The agency’s capital budget provides funding for commuter rail-track maintenance. The five-year, $29 billion budget ending next year includes $1.5 billion for Metro-North, according to budget documents.

Power Failure

In September and October, service on the Metro-North’s New Haven line was disrupted almost two weeks when a Consolidated Edison Inc (ED:US). power failure interrupted service for 130,000 passengers daily in Connecticut and suburban Westchester County in New York. That followed a May 17 collision in Connecticut between trains going in opposite directions. The incident involved 700 passengers, all of whom survived.

Yesterday, the southbound express from Poughkeepsie, about 80 miles north of New York City, departed at 5:54 a.m., bound for Grand Central. About 7:20 a.m., the railcars being pushed by a diesel locomotive derailed steps from the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx.

Tossed About

About 120 passengers were aboard, tossed about as several of the red-and-silver cars flipped onto their sides with the lead car coming to rest near the water’s edge.

The speed limit on the New York curve is 30 mph, compared with 70 mph before the curve, said MTA spokeswoman Anders. A CSX Corp. (CSX:US) freight train hauling garbage derailed there in July.

Yesterday, Kelon McFarlane of Poughkeepsie, a 30-year-old telecommunications student at New York City College of Technology en route to visit his aunt in Brooklyn, was in the train’s fourth car as it began to make its turn.

“All of a sudden I felt it picked up,” and the train leaned over more, McFarlane, 30, said in an interview. “I was thrown from one side to the next.”

McFarlane grabbed the overhead rack as the train tipped. The car skidded on its side, pounding and scraping the ground, he said. When it stopped, he and about three other passengers climbed out the exit.

“It was chaotic,” he said. “People were screaming.”

McFarlane was taken to a hospital to treat cuts and bruises on his hands, upper left thigh and right knee.

To contact the reporters on this story: Henry Goldman in New York at hgoldman@bloomberg.net; Freeman Klopott in Albany at fklopott@bloomberg.net; Michael B. Marois in Sacramento at mmarois@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Schoifet at mschoifet@bloomberg.net


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