New York’s Metro-North Railroad is shut down along the Hudson River after a train derailment caused the first passenger fatalities in the line’s 30-year history, renewing scrutiny of safety on one of the city’s major mass-transit arteries.
Four people were killed and 63 injured in the accident today in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Red and silver railcars flipped onto their sides, with the lead car coming to rest on the bank of the Harlem River. The crash marked the third time in a year that service to New York on the railroad, which provided 83 million rail rides in 2012, has been forced to shut down because of an accident.
“We realize that this is a very important railway for commuters in the New York area,” U.S. National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said at a briefing at the rail site, where the team will look for more victims once it rights the toppled railcars. “Our mission is to understand not just what happened but how it happened with the intent to keep it from happening again.”
The NTSB, which is investigating two other Metro-North accidents from earlier this year, will be on site for seven to 10 days for this probe, Weener said. Investigators will look at the track, signals, train equipment, brakes, personnel and event-data recorders as they figure out what caused the wreck.
Service on Metro-North’s Hudson Line is suspended in both directions between Croton-Harmon station and Grand Central Terminal.
In September and October, service on the railroad’s New Haven line was disrupted for almost two weeks when a Consolidated Edison Inc. power failure interrupted service for 130,000 passengers daily in Connecticut and suburban Westchester County in New York. That followed a May 17 collision in Connecticut between two trains going in opposite directions. The incident involved 700 passengers, all of whom survived.
“It’s too early to tell whether the situations are similar,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research who studies the regional mass-transit system. “However, the other incidents were obviously not good signs, whether about track conditions or other issues. Trains should not derail.”
In today’s accident, all seven passenger cars being pushed by a diesel locomotive derailed. Three of the four people who died were thrown from the train, New York Fire Department Chief Edward Kilduff said at a news conference. Eleven of the injured are critically hurt, said New York City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano.
Officials will examine the role that the phenomenon known as “slip side” -- which the MTA describes as a gelatinous, slippery “slime” of crushed leaves that can cause the wheels to slide along the rails -- may have played in the accident as well as the possibility of defective rail, Gelinas said in an interview.
About 100 to 150 people were on the train, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told WPIX-TV.
Injured passengers were taken to Jacobi Medical Center, Montefiore Medical Center, New York Presbyterian Hospital and St. Barnabas Hospital.
A 43-year-old man is suffering from a spinal-cord injury, the most critical case of the 12 victims sent to St. Barnabas in the Bronx, Steven Clark, a hospital spokesman, told reporters outside the emergency room. A 14-year-old boy, the only minor sent to St. Barnabas, had minor injuries and was released. His father, another patient, remains at the hospital, Clark said.
A female police officer suffered broken bones and is in stable condition, Clark said. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly visited the officer earlier today, Clark said.
Jacobi received 13 victims from the train crash, none with critical injuries, and all are in stable condition, John Doyle, spokesman for the hospital, said in a telephone interview.
New York Presbyterian received 17 patients from the crash with four in critical condition, WPIX reported.
Metro-North passenger Kelon McFarlane, a telecommunications student at New York City College of Technology who turned 30 yesterday, was on his way to visit his aunt in Brooklyn. The Poughkeepsie resident had just finished reading Ezekiel 22, 23 and 24 in the Bible as the train turned to go around a bend, leaning to the left.
“All of a sudden I felt it picked up,” and the train leaned over more, McFarlane said in an interview at Jacobi. “I was thrown from one side to the next.”
McFarlane, who was in the fourth car, grabbed the overhead rack as the train tipped over and he fell between two rows of seats. The car skidded on its side, pounding and scraping the ground, he said.
Leaning on the seats for support, he and about three other passengers walked to the exit door and climbed out.
“It was chaotic,” he said. “People were screaming. Everybody was in disbelief.”
McFarlane was sent to the hospital for cuts and bruises on his hands, upper left thigh and right knee.
The accident was reported via a 911 emergency call at 7:20 a.m. from the scene, said Michael Parrella, an FDNY spokesman.
The crash happened on a curving section of track near where the Hudson and Harlem rivers meet, Aaron Donovan, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman, said in a telephone interview. None of the derailed cars were submerged in water.
The curve of almost 90 degrees is more likely to blame than lack of spending by the MTA, said Peter Derrick, a transit historian and visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management.
“Obviously, there’s always questions about infrastructure, but Metro-North has actually done a good job, at least in the New York portion of the region,” of maintaining the tracks, said Derrick, who can see the accident scene from the window of his home. “I think it’s just that there’s a sharp curve there and the train was probably going too fast.”
A Spanish train accident in July that killed about 80 people also may have been related to speeding on a curve, government officials there have said.
The speed limit on the New York curve is 30 miles per hour, compared with 70 miles per hour in the area before the curve, said Marjorie Anders, an MTA spokeswoman, in a telephone interview. The train’s data recorders should be able to tell how fast it was traveling, she said.
A CSX Corp. freight train hauling municipal garbage derailed in July in the same area as today’s accident. The NTSB sent two investigators to the scene of the crash, which snarled Hudson Line commutes.
Derrick cited an accident at the same location that killed dozens in January 1882, when a Chicago-to-New York express train on its way to the city from Albany collided with the Tarrytown special. An article from the New York Herald at the time described it as “slaughter on the rails” with “burned and mangled victims.” The dead included Webster Wagner, the inventor of the sleeping car and a state legislator at the time who was “burned to a crisp in one of his own luxurious cars,” the newspaper said.
The safety board is already investigating Metro-North accidents from earlier this year.
The collision near Bridgeport, Connecticut, on May 17 injured dozens of passengers and led the NTSB to prod the railroad to change its track inspection procedures. The board also probed a rail-worker death on the railroad 11 days later.
“We’ll be looking for any similarities between this one and the one in Bridgeport,” said Kelly Nantel, an NTSB board spokeswoman.
In that crash, new railcars made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. that were required to meet tightened U.S. safety standards were credited for saving lives.
The cars in today’s crash were an older model made by Bombardier Inc., made for use with a diesel rather than electric locomotive, Donovan said. Bombardier, which supplied Amtrak’s Acela fleet that serves the U.S. Northeast between Washington and Boston, is based in Montreal.
Maryanne Roberts, a spokeswoman for Bombardier, said in an e-mail that the company is “still trying to gather info.”
Senators Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, called in e-mailed statements for a thorough, independent investigation.
U.S. rail-safety regulators on Nov. 29 finalized a rule intended to make it easier for passengers on Amtrak and U.S. commuter railroads such as Metro-North to escape trains after accidents. The Federal Railroad Administration finalized the rule, which will apply only to new railcars, 16 years after the NTSB recommended it.
The safety board called for egress improvements after a 1996 crash in Silver Spring, Maryland, that killed eight passengers and three crew members when Amtrak and Maryland Area Regional Commuter trains collided. Passengers were trapped after door emergency-release handles were damaged by fire and the interior lighting system didn’t work after the crash.
Today’s derailment happened near the Spuyten Duyvil station, a stop the southbound express train skipped. Train No. 8808 left Poughkeepsie, New York, at 5:54 a.m. and was due to arrive at Grand Central Terminal at 7:43 a.m., Donovan said.
Julia Worcester, an 18-year-old freshman at Mount Holyoke College, said she was awakened at her home overlooking the Hudson by the crash.
“I was asleep and it woke me up,” she said in an interview. “It was just a huge boom. It shook the top floor of our house.”
Angel Gonzalez, who lives near the crash site, said he’s relieved the train wasn’t more crowded.
“We are thanking God it was a weekend and not a weekday when people are going to work,” he said in an interview.
Family members in New York can call 311 for more information. Outside of New York, they can call 212-NEW-YORK (212-639-9675). John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx has been established as the family center and can be reached at 718-817-7444.