WALL STREET JOURNAL
ANDREW TANGEL, TED MANN and MIKE VILENSKY
A New Jersey commuter train crashed into a busy railroad terminal Thursday morning, killing one person, the latest in a series of fatal passenger train accidents around the country.
Mass transit is enjoying a resurgence in many U.S. cities. But the accidents highlight that financially strapped passenger railroads are struggling to quickly install the latest safety technologies, and in some cases have prioritized keeping trains moving over using fail-safe systems they already have.
Four people died in 2013 when the engineer of another New York City-area commuter train fell asleep at the controls and sped through a tight curve, derailing the train. Eight people died in Philadelphia last year when an Amtrak train derailed after speeding through a sharp turn. Both crashes could have been prevented by automatic braking systems that were planned but not yet deployed.
“We’re behind in introducing the latest technologies,” said Richard Barone, a transportation expert at the Regional Plan Association, a New York City-based urban planning group. “The agencies are undercapitalized.”
In the latest crash, a speeding NJ Transit train barreled through a bumper at the end of the track at the railroad’s terminal in Hoboken, N.J., a busy hub for New York City-area commuters.
Investigators recovered an event recorder from the locomotive Thursday night and will be examining it Friday, NTSB Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said Friday morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The device contains information on the train’s speed and braking.
Rich Scardaville, a 45-year-old IT specialist who was on board the train, said it was progressing normally into the Hoboken station and suddenly it “lurched forward at the last minute.” Then, he said, there was an “ungodly loud bang, like an explosion” before the lights went off and “everyone went flying.”
A portion of the train terminal’s ceiling collapsed after the crash, and authorities believe the person who died was likely killed by falling debris. The victim was identified as Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, of Hoboken.
More than 100 people were injured.
The engineer was treated and released at a local hospital, according to a person familiar with the matter. He tested negative for both alcohol and drugs, this person said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, “We have no indication this is anything but a tragic accident.” A mix of New Jersey and New York residents were on the train, he said.
While investigators examine potential equipment failures or an error by the engineer operating its locomotive, the crash spotlights a lingering vulnerability to train passengers despite a yearslong, multibillion-dollar U.S. push to prevent derailments and collisions.
Safety systems in place on NJ Transit’s and other passenger railroads generally aren’t configured to automatically stop speeding trains at stations and terminals, experts said.
Existing signal systems can force trains to stop before they enter terminals, but generally aren’t configured to do so in the final segments of track within the terminal itself. Railroad operators fear such a system would sharply slow down train traffic and lengthen commuting times. One person familiar with NJ Transit’s railroad said such a system at the Hoboken terminal would “cripple the operation.”
Railroad operators have generally viewed terminals and stations as safe because trains are already traveling at low speeds. Train movements are especially complex at such facilities as various tracks merge in a network of switches.
“If it was a human failure, there needs to be other safeguards,” said Steve Ditmeyer, a former federal railroad official who teaches railroad management at University of Delaware. “Those capabilities are available today.”
An advanced collision-avoidance system known as positive train control that railroads are under a federal mandate to install in coming years isn’t generally expected to be in effect at stations and terminals either. Amtrak, which has installed positive train control along its busy Northeast Corridor, doesn’t have the system operating at terminals and some stations on the stretch between Washington, D.C., and Boston.
An NJ Transit official said installing positive train control at the Hoboken terminal would be complex but doable. “Nothing is impossible, but it’s a nightmare,” he said.
The incident highlights a vulnerability that will linger in the nation’s rail system in any area where humans—not computerized or mechanical fail-safe systems—remain in full control of moving trains. Even when the next generation of rail control technology is active, as late as 2020, a slip-up within the confines of a train terminal, where those new systems won’t apply, could still lead to a serious accident.
Railroads should do as much as possible to make sure that automated back-ups can catch human error on the part of engineers, dispatchers and others on the railroad, a former safety official said, even if it means adding a layer of complexity to the signal systems that are used within railroad terminals like Hoboken.
“‘Complexity’ is the signal department working a little harder,” he said. “But then you don’t have 100 people in the hospital either.”
A National Transportation Safety Board official said in a news conference Thursday that the agency would be looking at similarities between the crash and another at the same station five years ago. On May 8, 2011—Mother’s Day—a PATH train crashed into bumpers at the end of the tracks, injuring more than 30 people.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of the 2011 accident was the failure of the engineer to control the speed of the train entering the station.
At a news conference Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the train “obviously” came in at “too high a rate of speed” into the station.
Investigators will also examine brakes and video from the platform and the locomotive to determine why the train was traveling at an apparently high speed on its approach to the platform.
The crash occurred at about 8:45 a.m. on the NJ Transit Pascack Valley line that departed from Spring Valley, N.Y., officials said.
Dylan Steinfeld, a 27-year-old Hoboken resident, was walking to the station to commute to work when he heard a bang.
“As I was coming in, people were coming out and didn’t know where to go,” he said. Mr. Steinfeld’s boss, told of the situation, told him to work from home Thursday.
Robert Puentes, chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C., said it remained to be seen whether the string of crashes would lead riders to shift to transit modes such as cars or potentially move.
He pointed to Washington’s Metro as an example of system where a spate of accidents and unreliability led to ridership declines.
Mr. Puentes said transit agencies could pay for technology upgrades if they make it a priority. “We know haven’t taken full advantage of the technology that’s out there to make these systems safer,” he said.