Derailed train had alert mechanism, but not in driver’s car: Source

metro north train
The Metro-North passenger train derailed en route to New York City near the Spuyten Duyvil station, killing four people and wounding 63 others on Dec. 1 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Credit: Getty

The New York commuter train that derailed killing four people on Sunday had a safety system designed to keep its engineer alert, but it was not installed in the car from which he was controlling the train, a source familiar with the railroad’s operations said.

The engineer, William Rockefeller, 46, told authorities he became dazed and lost focus shortly before the crash as the train took a curve at three times the speed limit, investigators said.

The source said Metro-North commuter railroad trains such as the one on the ill-fated Poughkeepsie-New York City run are equipped with two safety systems to alert fatigued or distracted engineers.

In one system, every 25 seconds the train is in motion, an alert sounds unless the engineer makes at least a minor movement of the throttle or controller, indicating he or she is alert. If the engineer is idle, the system soon automatically starts applying the train’s brakes.

On the train that derailed on the curve entering Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx, the diesel locomotive was equipped with the driver alert system, the source said.

But the driver was running the train from a “control cab” at the front of the first passenger carriage, not from the locomotive pushing seven carriages from the rear, and this control cab did not have the alerting system, the source added.

“The locomotive had an alerter. The (control) cab didn’t,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity during an ongoing investigation.

Few if any Metro-North trains set up in similar push-pull configurations – where the locomotive pulls the train one way, then pushes it on the return trip – are equipped with the driver alert system at both ends, the source said.

A former supervisor of the driver at Metro-North confirmed the source’s description, although he was unable to say how the derailed train was equipped.

“I know the locomotive end would have had to have this touch system, but I don’t know the model of the car so I can’t say for sure whether or not it was equipped with the system,” Michael McLendon, a recently retired assistant director of Metro-North’s shops and facilities team, told Reuters.

The Federal Railway Administration and National Transportation Safety Board declined to comment on the alert systems on the derailed train, saying such information is part of the ongoing accident investigation.

Metro-North said late on Wednesday that full service would resume on Thursday morning in the area of the derailment. It said workers have been rebuilding the tracks, although the most damaged part was still under construction.

Partial service resumed earlier in the week.

Positive Train Control

A second automatic control system, designed to apply the brakes if the train passed a red signal or faced a possible collision, was also installed on the derailed train but was not key to the investigation, as those conditions did not apply.

National Transportation Safety Board officials have also said that a much more advanced safety system called Positive Train Control (PTC), which Congress has ordered railroads to install on heavily trafficked passenger and freight lines by December 2015, might have prevented the crash.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it began work to install PTC on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad in 2009, but the 2015 deadline will be difficult for the MTA as well as for other commuter railroads to meet.

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

Last March, Metro-North won a large contract with a consortium led by the German equipment supplier Siemens and the Canadian company Bombardier to upgrade the train control systems to Positive Train Control standard on both the Metro-North commuter railroad, which serves northern New York suburbs and Connecticut towns, and the Long Island Railroad.

Industry and government officials acknowledged that a variety of problems, including the need for further technological development, will make it impossible for the industry to meet the deadline.

In the case of Metro-North alone, said a source familiar with the railroad’s operations, the target date for completing installation of PTC will be years after December 2015.

“People who have (issued) the mandate have no clue,” the source said.

According to a report issued in August 2012 by the Federal Railroad Administration, only two U.S. railroad lines — the Northeast Corridor where high-speed Acela trains operate and a line in Michigan where trains can go up to 110 mph — are equipped with full PTC equipment so far.


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