Deadly train crash reignites safety de­bate

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE -

A rush-hour com­muter train crashed through a bar­rier at the busy Hobo­ken sta­tion and lurched across the wait­ing area Thurs­day morn­ing, killing one per­son and in­jur­ing more than 100 oth­ers in a grisly wreck that renewed ques­tions about whether long-de­layed au­to­mated safety tech­nol­ogy could have pre­vented tragedy.

Peo­ple pulled chunks of con­crete off pinned and bleed­ing vic­tims, pas­sen­gers kicked out win­dows and crawled to safety, and cries and screams could be heard in the wreck­age at the sta­tion just across the Hud­son River from New York City as emergency work­ers rushed to reach com­muters in the tan­gle of twisted metal and dan­gling wires.

The New Jersey Tran­sit train, which orig­i­nated in Rock­land County, ran off the end of its track as it pulled into the sta­tion, smash­ing through a con­crete-and-steel bumper. It ap­par­ently knocked out pil­lars as it ground to a halt in the wait­ing area, col­laps­ing a sec­tion of the build­ing’s roof onto the train.

“All of a sud­den, there was an abrupt stop and a big jolt that threw peo­ple out of their seats. The lights went out, and we heard a loud crash­ing noise like an ex­plo­sion” as the roof fell, said Ross Bauer, who was sit­ting in the third or fourth car when the train en­tered the his­toric 109-year-old sta­tion, a bustling hub for com­muters head­ing to New York City. “I heard pan­icked screams, and ev­ery­one was stunned.”

The train’s en­gi­neer, orig­i­nally said to be in crit­i­cal con­di­tion af­ter be­ing pulled from the man­gled first car, was re­leased from the hospi­tal Thurs­day af­ter­noon and was co­op­er­at­ing with investigators, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board.

A woman stand­ing on the plat­form was killed by de­bris, and 108 oth­ers were in­jured, mostly on the train, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said. Seventy-four of them were hos­pi­tal­ized, some in se­ri­ous con­di­tion, with in­juries that in­cluded bro­ken bones, bumps and gashes.

“The train came in at much too high rate of speed, and the ques­tion is: ‘Why is that?’” Christie said. New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo said investigators will determine whether the ex­pla­na­tion was an equip­ment fail­ure, an in­ca­pac­i­tated en­gi­neer, or some­thing else.

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board sent investigators. Among other things, they will want to know what the oper­a­tor was do­ing be­fore the crash and whether the per­son was dis­tracted or fa­tigued, said Bob Chip­ke­vich, who for­merly headed the NTSB train crash in­ves­ti­ga­tions sec­tion.

None of NJ Tran­sit’s trains is fully equipped with pos­i­tive train con­trol, a safety sys­tem de­signed to prevent ac­ci­dents by au­to­mat­i­cally slow­ing or stop­ping trains that are go­ing too fast. Pos­i­tive train con­trol re­lies on radio and GPS sig­nals to mon­i­tor trains’ po­si­tions and speed.

The NTSB has been press­ing for some ver­sion of the tech­nol­ogy since at least 1990, and the in­dus­try is un­der govern­ment or­ders to in­stall it, but reg­u­la­tors have re­peat­edly ex­tended the dead­line at rail­roads’ re­quest. The tar­get date is now the end of 2018.

“While we are just be­gin­ning to learn the cause of this crash, it ap­pears that once again an accident was not pre­vented be­cause the trains our com­muters were rid­ing lacked pos­i­tive train con­trol,” said U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-Cold Spring. “The longer we fail to pri­or­i­tize in­vest­ing in rail safety tech­nol­ogy, the more in­no­cent lives we put in jeop­ardy. ”But both Cuomo and Christie said that it is too soon to say whether such tech­nol­ogy would have made a difference in the Hobo­ken crash.

Cuomo can­celed his planned trip to Is­rael for Shi­mon Peres’ fu­neral be­cause of the train crash.

Over the past 20 years, the NTSB has listed the lack of pos­i­tive train con­trol as a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in 25 crashes. Those in­clude the Am­trak wreck last year in Philadel­phia in which a train ran off the rails along a curve, killing eight peo­ple; and the Metro-North de­rail­ment in the Bronx in De­cem­ber 2013 that killed four. The Metro-North train, which orig­i­nated in Pough­keep­sie, went off the tracks on a curve while go­ing 85 mph af­ter its en­gi­neer, Ger­man­town res­i­dent Wil­liam Rock­feller, ap­par­ently nod­ded off at the con­trols as a re­sult of un­di­ag­nosed sleep ap­nea.

NJ Tran­sit trains do have an alerter sys­tem — a sort of dead man’s de­vice — that can sound a loud alarm and then stop a train if the en­gi­neer goes ap­prox­i­mately 15 to 20 sec­onds with­out ad­just­ing the con­trols. But it is not clear whether that would have made a difference ei­ther.

The train was not equipped with an in­ward­fac­ing cam­era in the cab that could give a fuller pic­ture of the oper­a­tor’s ac­tions.

The Hobo­ken ter­mi­nal han­dles more than 50,000 train and bus rid­ers daily, many of them headed into New York City. Af­ter ar­riv­ing at Hobo­ken, they take fer­ries or PATH com­muter trains across the river to the city.

NJ Tran­sit service was suspended in and out of Hobo­ken, all but as­sur­ing a painful com­mute for many. Christie said engi­neers were ex­am­in­ing the sta­tion’s struc­tural in­tegrity and it was too soon to say when it might re­open to NJ Tran­sit trains.

The train, No. 1614, left Spring Val­ley, N.Y, at 7:23 a.m. and crashed at 8:45 a.m. NJ Tran­sit spokes­woman Jen­nifer Nel­son said she didn’t know how fast the train was go­ing when it crashed through the con­crete-and-steel bumper at the end of the line.

The train was op­er­ated by New Jersey Tran­sit for New York’s Metro-North Rail­road on the Pas­cack Val­ley Line.

Wil­liam Blaine, an en­gi­neer for a com­pany that runs freight trains, was in­side the sta­tion when the train crashed and ran over to help. He said he saw the train’s en­gi­neer slumped over the con­trols.

Jamie Weather head Saul, who was stand­ing at a door be­tween the first and sec­ond cars, said the train didn’t slow down as it en­tered the sta­tion. She said the im­pact hurled pas­sen­gers against her, and one woman got her leg caught be­tween the doors be­fore fel­low rid­ers man­aged to pull her up.

Michael Lar­son, an NJ Tran­sit em­ployee who was work­ing in the ter­mi­nal about 30 feet away, said he saw the train come in fast, go over the con­crete-and-steel “bumper block” and lift up into the air, stop­ping only when it hit the wall of the sta­tion’s in­door wait­ing area.

As the train hur­tled into the de­pot amid con­crete dust and dan­gling elec­tri­cal wires, “I couldn’t be­lieve what I was see­ing,” he said. Half the first car was de­stroyed, with some pas­sen­gers crawl­ing to try to es­cape, Lar­son said.

More than 100,000 peo­ple use NJ Tran­sit trains to com­mute from New Jersey into New York City daily.

A crash at the same sta­tion on a PATH com­muter train in­jured more than 30 peo­ple in 2011. The train crashed into bumpers at the end of the tracks on a Sun­day morn­ing.

WIL­LIAM SUN — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple ex­am­ine the wreck­age of a New Jersey Tran­sit com­muter train af­ter it crashed Thurs­day morn­ing at the Hobo­ken, N.J. sta­tion.

Sig­nif­i­cant struc­tural dam­age is ev­i­dent at the Hobo­ken train sta­tion af­ter Thurs­day’s accident.

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