Deadly train crash reignites safety debate
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.
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.