Human error, technical failure probed in deadly NJ train crash
The investigation into a New Jersey commuter train that hurtled into a station building Thursday raises many familiar issues from other crashes, including whether the tragedy could have been prevented or mitigated if a key safety technology had been in place.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, has been calling on railroads to start using the safety technology, called positive train control, or PTC, for nearly four decades.
New Jersey Transit is in the process of installing the technology, but it was not in operation yet on any of the agency’s trains or tracks.
A commuter train plowed into a station in New Jersey at the height of Thursday’s morning rush hour, killing a woman on the platform and injuring more than 100 people as it brought down part of the roof and scattered debris over the concourse.
Witnesses described terrifying scenes as the front of the train smashed through the track stop at high speed and into the Hoboken terminal, toppling support columns and creating chaos at one of the busiest transit hubs in the New York City area.
“I heard a kaboom, and the whole place shook ... [I] just saw people on the ground, bleeding and trying to get up. I didn’t know what happened, I [was] still thinking a bomb,” said William Blaine, a freight train engineer in Hoboken who was on the train. “I was just like 30 seconds away from being killed.”
“We have no indication that this is anything other than a tragic accident but ... we’re going to let the law enforcement professionals pursue the facts,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said at a news conference in Hoboken alongside New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Train No. 1614 originated in the town of Spring Valley in New York state and was at the end of its hourlong journey when it crashed.
The train’s engineer, or driver, was injured and taken to a hospital but later released, officials said.
US National Transportation Safety Board Vice-Chairman Bella DinhZarr told a separate news conference in Hoboken that investigators would retrieve the event recorder, which tracks speed, braking and other data, from the rear of the train on Thursday night.
She said the train was operating in a “push-pull configuration” in which locomotive-hauled trains can be driven from either end. The train had an engine that was pushing four cars including the controlling, or cab, car in front, officials said.
“Our investigation will continue here on scene for seven to 10 days,” Dinh-Zarr said.
Mike DeFusco, a Hoboken City Council member, said: “I was here this morning watching first responders do an amazing job taking care of those injured.”
The New Jersey medical examiner’s office identified the victim as Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, of Hoboken. The woman was a former employee in the Brazilian legal department of SAP, the technology company said in a statement.
Cuomo said it was obvious the train came into the station too fast, but it was unclear why. The cause could be human error or technical failure, Cuomo said.
He added that it was too early to say whether an anti-collision system
known as positive train control (PTC) could have prevented the crash. PTC is designed to halt a train if the driver misses a stop signal, and advocates cite it for helping to combat human error.
The crash renews focus on the mandatory anti-collision system that has been plagued with lengthy, contentious delays. According to a report by NJ Transit to the Federal Railroad Administration for the first half of 2016, the public transport system does not have PTC in operation on its 326-mile network.
New Jersey Transit ranked second for the most train accident reports nationwide for commuter railroads from January 2007 through June 2016, behind Amtrak.
New Jersey Transit had 271 accidents, or 18 percent of the total, compared to Amtrak’s 44 percent, according to data from the US Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis.
Mike Larson, who works as a machinist for NJ Transit, was 30 feet away from the train just before it slammed into the platform. He told The Journal News of Westchester County, New York, that the train’s speed appeared to be about 30 mph.
The speed limit in the station is 10 miles (16 km) per hour, the NTSB’s Dinh-Zarr told reporters.
The terminal, listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, was designed in the Beaux Arts style and construction finished in 1907. It lies on the Hudson River’s west bank across from New York City. Its station is used by many commuters traveling into Manhattan from New Jersey and New York state.
Hoboken is the last stop on the lines it serves.
A couple of hundred emergency workers spent the morning shuttling in and out of the station, some carrying the injured on stretchers to ambulances outside. Federal investigators later began examining the wreckage.
Linda Albelli, a 62-year-old from Closter, New Jersey, was sitting in one of the train’s rear cars and described how she had felt something was wrong a moment before the impact.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, he’s not slowing up, and this is where we usually stop,’” Albelli said. “We’re going too fast, and with that there was this tremendous crash.”
As investigators searched for clues to the cause of the accident, some said it could and should have been prevented.
US Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat on a Senate committee that includes transportation matters, said the crash was “hauntingly similar” to past tragedies involving insufficient or unsafe practices or equipment. Blumenthal has called for the rollout of the anti-collision system.
The historic green-roofed Hoboken Station is served by NJ Transit commuter trains connecting much of New Jersey with the country’s largest city, as well as the Port Authority Trans-Hudson subwaylike system known as PATH, a light rail service and ferry service to New York.
In May 2011, a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey train crashed at Hoboken station, injuring more than 30 people. An investigation by the NTSB determined excessive speed was the main cause of the accident. Zhang Xiaotian contributed to this story.
A derailed New Jersey Transit train is seen under a collapsed roof after it derailed and crashed into the station in Hoboken, New Jersey, on Thursday.
A New Jersey Transit train that derailed and crashed through the station (exterior pictured right) is seen in Hoboken on Thursday, killing a woman and injuring more than 100 people.
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