The horrifying Metro-North train-car accident in a New York City suburb on February 3, 2015 has heightened attention on the too-frequent deadly accidents involving trains and automobiles in the United States.
In this latest accident, the Metro-North Train No. 659 was moving north on the Harlem line with just under 800 passengers when it smashed into a Jeep Cherokee operated by Ellen Brody at the Commerce Street crossing. Though the train’s engineer saw the partial blockage approximately 300 feet before the crossing and applied the emergency brake, the train was able to slow from 58 to 49 M.P.H. before colliding with the vehicle. In addition to killing Ellen Brody, the crash tore pieces of the track’s third rail, which then pierced the train, killing 5 passengers. In the end, 12 39-foot rail pieces were found inside the train.
The crash investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) touches on many common causes of train crashes: train speed; track construction and maintenance; rail metallurgy; rail crossings; and drivers.
The Metro-North accident of February 3rd is merely the latest in a string of train accidents. During a 10-month stretch in 2013 – 2014, there were 5 accidents and derailments killing six people and injuring approximately 125. Apparently, Metro-North bears some responsibility for the spate of accidents, as Senator Chuck Schumer called the railroad, “horror house of negligence, resulting in injury, mayhem and even death.”
Why are we hearing about so many crashes, the Metro-North accident being merely the latest of many? Several factors apparently combine to create frequent train-car accidents. Negligence on the part of the railroad is apparently one large factor. However, car drivers are also notorious contributors to the “injury, mayhem and even death.” The Federal Railroad Administration reports that there are almost 40,000 railway grade crossings in the U. S. and an average of 270 people are killed at those crossings every year.
The crossing warning systems are funded by the federal government, states and railroads, though the railroads are responsible for installation and maintenance. The warning lights must begin flashing at least 25 seconds before a train’s arrival at the crossing, at which point car drivers are supposed to stop a sufficient distance from the tracks and wait for the train to pass. However, authorities are finding that the 25-second minimum may be insufficient, drivers are too impatient and cross the tracks despite warnings, and train conductors often have insufficient notice of track obstruction to safely stop their trains.
The United States is exploring European and Asian railroad systems that have sensors warning conductors of track obstructions, warnings and drop barriers 1 – ½ minutes before trains reach crossings, and flashing lights that count down the seconds until the train arrives at the crossing (to somewhat calm impatient drivers). The Federal Railroad Administration intends to examine each crossing independently to give sufficient warning to drivers without making them so impatient that they’ll ignore the warnings.
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