The Metro-North accident Tuesday night that left at least six people dead, including the driver of an SUV that was illegally on the railroad tracks, came at a grade crossing, which regulators have said for years should be eliminated across the U.S. for safety reasons.
A 2014 report by the Federal Railroad Administration described Metro-North's overall safety record as "unacceptable," following a 2013 derailment in Riverdale that killed four people.
Regulators accused the MTA of sacrificing safety for efficiency, and found that Metro-North did not comply with several requirements for operating rules of trains over grade crossings "under certain conditions."
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The report suggested "the elimination of grade crossings with strategic placement of overpasses and underpasses” to “enhance rail, vehicular, and pedestrian safety."
The MTA told Metro the only violation the agency was aware of related to grade crossings had to do with its "Stop-and-Warn" system, where in certain conditions a conductor steps off the train to make sure it can continue moving. An MTA spokesperson said the agency had resolved that issue last April, and is fully compliant with federal grade crossing regulations.
Officials identified the driver of the SUV as Ellen Brody of Edgemont, New York. Brody, 49, was reportedly on her way home when her vehicle appeared to get stuck at the tracks on Commerce Street and safety gate arms fell on top the car as she crossed the tracks.
Rather than back up, Brody apparently tried to cross the tracks before the northbound train arrived and was hit by the 8-car train that was traveling at 58 m.p.h.
The best way to prevent accidents similar to Tuesday night's would be to close them and build either over- or underpasses, said former MTA executive Mortimer Downey.
"But the first is always controversial and the second is very expensive," said Downey, who served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation under President Bill Clinton.
Downey chaired a 2014 panel that examined rail safety and infrastructure throughout the MTA's system, including Metro-North. Grade crossings were not a part of the report's findings.
Eliminating all 129 grade crossings on Metro-North tracks would take years, and cost figures were not immediately available. The MTA budgeted $1.5 million in fiscal year 2016 for upgrading Metro-North grade crossings.
Nationwide, the Federal Railroad Administration reports 270 deaths a year at grade crossings like the one where the accident took place, where roads cross rail tracks at ground level.
The modern-day safety guard arms at grade crossings are supposed to have guard arms and red lights to warn drivers to avoid the tracks about an incoming train.
The damaged Metro-North train cannot be removed nor can repairs begin until investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board finish gathering evidence.
The MTA hoped to resume train service along the affected Upper Harlem Line by Thursday. Service between Pleasantville and North White Plains will remain suspended for the time being.