Brakes on derailed train were working fine, NTSB says

NTSB Board Member Earl Weener Tuesday said the investigation into Sunday's Metro-North derailment has so far found no anomalies or problems with the train's brake system. Credit: Reuters
NTSB Board Member Earl Weener Tuesday said the investigation into Sunday’s Metro-North derailment has so far found no anomalies or problems with the train’s brake system.
Credit: Reuters

The National Transportation Safety Board has found no issues with the brake system on the Metro-North train that derailed on Sunday.

Ruling out mechanical failure seems to suggest the cause of Sunday’s fatal derailment was the product of human error, but NTSB Board Member Earl Weener said it is still too early to to reach that conclusion. As of Tuesday afternoon, Weener said, the engineer who had been driving the train was still being interviewed by investigators.

Reports have suggested that the engineer may have “dozed off” moments before the derailment. Weener said investigators still do not have enough information about the seconds before the crash to determine whether that is the case.

Though he did not know when the engineer’s previous shift had ended, Weener said, “there’s every indication that he would have had time to get full restorative sleep.”

The engineer who was driving the train on Sunday has worked for Metro-North for 15 years, Weener said. He has been an engineer for 10 years, and has driven this route full-time since Nov. 17, regularly making two round-trip runs each day. A typical day lasts about nine hours, Weener said. This was the second day of his five-day work week.

Alcohol breath tests of all of the crew members were negative, Weener said. The results of drug tests are still pending.

A system called “positive train control” has been discussed in the days following the derailment as a possible safeguard in such situations. Weener noted that the NTSB has been pushing for such a system for Metro-North for some time.

“For more than 20 years, the NTSB has recommended the implementation of PTC technology,” Weener insisted. “Broadly speaking, we know that human error can’t be eradicated.”

Which is why, he said, PTC is so vital: it has prevented incidents varying from train-to-train collisions, incursions into work zones and overspeed derailments, like the one that left 70 passengers injured and four dead.

Congress mandated in 2008 that Metro-North and several other railroad entities install PTC systems by 2015. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the body that oversees Metro-North, has repeatedly said they simply cannot meet that deadline. Other railroads have similarly balked, requesting a three-year extension to 2018.

On Tuesday, the MTA put out a statement responding to Weener’s comments, affirming their commitment to implementing a PTC system “on the most aggressive schedule possible,” but noting several challenges.

“Much of the technology is still under development and is untested and unproven for commuter railroads the size and complexity of Metro-North and the LIRR, and all of the radio spectrum necessary to operate PTV has not been made available,” the statement said.

They also noted that they are short on funding for the $900 million system, but vowed to “make sure the appropriate funding is made.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pivoted on a question about the derailment, seizing the opportunity to call for better funding of the transit system. He mentioned a congestion pricing plan he had pushed for, which was ultimately “rejected by the State legislature.”

“And they said they’d come up with something else,” he said. I don’t know that they have, particularly.”

Service resumes

The MTA announced after the NTSB press conference that service along the Metro-North Hudson Line will resume Wednesday in time for the morning commute.

Trains will take the inner track along the curve where the derailment occurred. The middle track, which the derailed train was on, was damaged Sunday. The outer track was destroyed when the overturned train cars plowed toward the water’s edge.

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat


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