While the train crash Tuesday in a New York City suburb was the deadliest in Metro-North’s history, experts say the beleaguered railroad likely isn’t to blame.
In October, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) lambasted the railroad as a “horror house of negligence, resulting in injury, mayhem and even death.” The senator was responding to a 10-month period from 2013 to 2014 in which six people were killed, and nearly 125 injured, in five separate accidents and derailments.
But looking at preliminary reports of Tuesday’s deadly crash in Valhalla -- which killed six and injured 12 after a train smashed into a vehicle on the tracks -- experts say that Metro-North doesn’t appear to be at fault this time. Instead, they said the crash highlights already existing concerns about railway grade crossings -- the places where railroads intersect with streets, pathways and highways.
“Something has to be done to keep drivers off tracks,” Steven Ditmeyer, an adjunct professor of railway management at Michigan State University, told The Huffington Post, noting that grade crossing accidents are one of the leading causes of deaths on the country’s railroads.
Metro-North Train No. 659 was traveling north along the Harlem line Tuesday evening with nearly 800 passengers aboard when it struck a Jeep Cherokee at the Commerce Street grade crossing, a railroad spokesman said.
The front of the train and the SUV burst into flames. Authorities said the impact of the crash caused the electrified third rail to pierce the train. Five of the train’s passengers, as well as the driver of the Jeep, died.
According to witnesses, the SUV's driver exited her vehicle after the crossing’s safety gates came down. She then got back in the Jeep and was trying to drive forward when the train struck her.
“It looks like where she stopped, she did not want to go on the tracks, but the proximity of the gate to her car, you know, it was dark -- maybe she didn’t know she was in front of the gate,” Rick Hope, who was driving the car directly behind the woman, told WNYW.
Authorities said the train’s engineer hit the emergency brake upon seeing the woman on the tracks, but it was too late.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were on the scene in Valhalla on Wednesday, where they will focus their investigation in part on the crossing gates and rail traffic signals at the grade crossing. Each device, investigator Robert L. Sumwalt told The New York Times, has “a recorder on it,” and experts will be reviewing the captured material.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there are nearly 40,000 railway grade crossings in the United States, and every year, an average of 270 people are killed at these crossings.
Many of these deaths, Ditmeyer said, are caused by the drivers, who ignore signals or try to speed across the tracks -- but he said that doesn’t mean the crossings can’t be made safer.
Grade crossing warning systems, which include gates and flashing lights, are jointly funded by the federal government, states and railroads, Ditmeyer said. The railroads themselves are responsible for the installation and upkeep of grade crossing warning systems.
In the United States, Ditmeyer said, it’s required that crossing signals -- the flashing lights at grade crossings -- begin to flash a minimum of 25 seconds before the train is set to arrive.
“In Europe and Asia, the grade crossing signals are put down a minute to a minute and half before,” he said.
And although Ditmeyer said he supports the idea of adopting earlier grade crossing signals, he’s worried about the temperament of American drivers. Many drivers, he said, might grow impatient waiting for a train to pass and try to speed over the tracks.
Augustine Ubaldi, a railroad engineer and consultant for Robson Forensic, said this is especially true in urban areas. “A lot of people in urban areas tend to be impatient, he said. “After 40 seconds, they'll say it's not coming, and then drive on through.”
He added that “each crossing needs to be looked at independently” to determine the time for when the crossing signal should be turned on. “You have to balance it between giving the driver sufficient warning, and not making it so long as to cause people to become impatient and then ignore the warnings.”
There are other options that could prevent grade crossing collisions. Ditmeyer said crossings in Europe and Asia have sensors that notify a train if the crossing is blocked, giving the engineer time to stop.
Another option being explored by the Department of Transportation, Ditmeyer said, is outfitting grade crossings with signs counting down to the next train’s arrival.
For Ubaldi, however, the most important thing is awareness. “When the light’s flashing,” Ubaldi said, “stop your car.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the train's engineer as the "conductor." Whereas an engineer operates a train, the conductor does not.