My thoughts on the MNR Derailment on Dec 1, 2013

My thoughts on the MNR Derailment on Dec 1, 2013

Image (c) Fox News

A terrible derailment on the Metro-North Railroad Hudson Line just outside of the Spuyten Duyvil Station killed 4 people and injured over 60 other people. The train left Poughkeepsie at 5:55am and was due at Grand Central Terminal at 7:43am. The train consisted of seven push-pull “Shoreliner” railcars being pushed by a GE P32AC-DM “Genesis” locomotive. All seven cars derailed, though 3 of them were still upright. The cab car came very close to falling into the Harlem River, less than 100 feet away from the tracks.

What we do know is that according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) findings, the engineer of the train was a 15-year veteran of Metro-North and was operating the train a week to two weeks after a shift from a night job to a morning job. It was found that the train was going southbound at 82MPH approaching the curve before the Spuyten Duyvil Station and the engineer also applied the emergency brakes to attempt to stop the train. The maximum allowable speed between the junction where Amtrak splits off from Metro-North to roughly around Marble Hill Station is 30MPH for passenger trains, 20MPH for freight trains. The maximum speed for the line north of the Junction is supposedly 70MPH but is not completely enforced by cab signals. The engineer was said to have zoned out minutes before the derailment and hit the emergency brakes once he approached the curve to stop the train and regain control.

What we do not know is why he was going so fast to begin with and, though it could have been avoided, what caused him to zone out. There is much speculation at this point as to why this happened, but until the investigation is complete, we will not know.

What are my thoughts of this?

It appeared to me, when I first heard about the story and turned on the news at about 9:43 that morning, that speed must have been a factor, which it turned out to be the case, again according to the NTSB findings. If the curve going into Spuyten Duyvil has a maximum speed of 30MPH, for the train to have traveled off the tracks and the cab car to have reached the riverbed, the train had to have gone much higher than the speed limit. For four cars to have completely left the tracks and wound up where they did, the engineer must have been speeding. However, speed isn’t the whole picture, though you can’t tell that to the Daily News (http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/metro-north-derailment-data-recorder-found-article-1.1534730) or the New York Post (http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/03.jpg). Overspeeding around a curve as dangerous as the Spuyten Duyvil curve might have caused the train to derail, but according to the angles at which the cars came off the tracks and found their final resting places, an emergency brake application at the curve itself might also be the cause, especially since you have seven relatively lightweight 50+ ton passenger cars being “pushed” by a 100-ton locomotive. It is possible that when the engineer applied emergency brakes, though all brakes were said to have functioned properly (an engineer would have to check their brakes before starting travel in any direction, a Federal Railroad Administration mandate), there may have been a delay in the application of the locomotive brakes from the cab car of the train while the brakes on the passenger cars were applied, causing the locomotive, still moving at the train’s speed, to push against the passenger cars which were starting to slow down. Thus, the cars would all “jack-knife” and jump the tracks to all of their final resting places. Now, push-pull trains have been operating in many places since at least the dawn of the railroad age, so that is not to say that had it been a electric multiple-unit train, like those found on the Hudson Line that don’t run past Croton-Harmon or on the New Haven Line, this would not have happened. The momentum of trailing cars on a train and the response of the air brakes on these trains can be a contributing factor to a train derailing and jack-knifing like the one on Sunday.

Whatever the reasons, consequences, actions, etc. of this event, no one can deny the loss of life, the 4 commuters who were ejected from the train as it derailed, or the reduction in ridership after train service resumed on the Hudson Line, although not fully (that is expected tomorrow). No one can deny that this engineer, who walked away from the scene, actually being sent off on a stretcher at one point, may face four counts of vehicular manslaughter and be sent away for a very long time if found guilty. No one can deny the admission of being zoned out at the controls may possibly be a factor in the accident, that had he been more alert, he may have slowed down way before the curve and would have continued on to Grand Central without incident.

There was an interesting bit of speculation from someone I know that his excessive speed might be due to leaving Tarrytown several minutes late, but this is largely unconfirmed.

Either way, this is a tragic incident which might lead to sweeping changes in the railroad industry, some for the good, others maybe not so good. There might be changes to the way engineers (and even subway/metro/light rail operators) work certain shifts or spend downtime between shifts, to executing safety measures like Positive Train Control (PTC) on all railroads, which the government already mandates all railroads to install by 2015, and to implementing tougher speed restrictions on sections of lines with already tight passenger timetables. We might see a crackdown on speeding like never before, an increase of random sobriety tests for railroad and transit companies to protect themselves from litigation, and possibly a change in work rules which might prohibit workers from working consecutive shifts less than 8 hours apart, which is the standard in the railroad industry, also known as an 8-hour turnaround. We have seen what has happened to the industry after the 2008 Chatsworth accident that killed 25 people, all because an engineer blew a stop signal and ran the Metrolink train into the path of an oncoming freight train while he was texting a railfan who was tracking him down. We all know what happened on the motorcoach side of the industry after the 2011 accident involving the World Wide Tours bus that crashed in the Bronx, killing 14 people, all because the driver was speeding and cutting trucks off all while sleep-deprived and inattentive.

Depending on the final investigation’s findings and subsequent actions by the FRA, NTSB, and the Railroad, I can see sweeping changes and lawsuits from families of the victims, among other things. I speak on this as an operator on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and as a rail enthusiast who takes his job seriously and likes what he does. I shake my head at the loss of life, but I also shake my head as I worry about how the public perceives us as engineers and train operators. Our job is hard enough, with crazy hours, passengers complaining about why we are late or why we are being held at certain locations, and train control managers who are constantly pressuring us to maintain a tight schedule all while trying to keep our passengers safe. Now, I am at the bottom of the totem pole at HBLR, so the extra board is inevitable, with assignments that might have me reporting at 5PM and getting out at 2AM, then depending on coverage, might have me back on at 10AM the next morning. Add that to the fact that during peak hours, trains are running on each branch of the HBLR at 10-minute frequencies and trains are on top of each other, which means that if one train has a door problem, the trains behind it are delayed, and a 30-minute runtime from Hoboken to 8th Street might turn into 35 minutes easily, which affects the railroad’s on-time performance. It’s not easy to do what I do, but the pay that railroad and transit employees make and the sense of responsibility for the safe operation of transit vehicles makes it worth it…to a degree. We will see what comes of this accident.

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