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Metro North Train Tragedy Again Proves Urgent Need for PTC

By Pottroff & Karlin LLC |

(New York, New York – December 6, 2013)

Once again, a horrible, fatal tragedy that today’s technology could have prevented has occurred due to a general railroad attitude of profits vs. safety. Sunday morning’s Metro North passenger train disaster would undoubtedly have been prevented had Positive Train Control (PTC) been in place and operational. PTC has been the number one transportation safety improvement desire on the National Transportation Safety Board’s “Wish List” for 2013.

Signs for the Sunday accident in which four passengers died and nearly 70 passengers and crew were injured point to momentary inattention by the locomotive engineer, William Rockefeller. However,

The 46-year-old Rockefeller, a resident of Germantown, NY, worked his way through the ranks of the Metro North (Metropolitan Transit Authority) Railway system, starting his railroad career as a custodian at Grand Central in the 1990’s and rising to his current, six-figure job as a locomotive engineer.

Although Rockefeller was the lone occupant of the control cab, authorities also interviewed the train’s conductor and trainman (assistant conductor), who were performing their duties of coordinating passenger services in the interiors of the seven rail cars. The railroad industry, which at one time required at least two employees in the cab of any locomotive, especially a train carrying passengers, to check and balance one another, helping prevent the possibility of lack of attention by their co-worker at the controls of the train, has continually bargained to reduce the number of employees on board a train. In fact, at one time, as many as six operating employees were required to be aboard any train, but as each subsequent labor agreement was formulated, rail management did all possible to reduce labor costs through eliminating the number of personnel needed to operate a train. The train was already operating at 82 mph, a dozen mph greater than the permissible 70 mph track that led into the 30 mph curve as it approached the Spuyten Duyvil station and the Harlem River, a condition that could have been abated by a second crewman in the cab, and would have been corrected by PTC.

The train’s emergency braking system was activated only six seconds before it entered the 30 mph curve, and Rockefeller at first had claimed that the brakes had failed to respond to his initial application. “We are not aware of any problems or anomalies with the brakes,” said National Transportation Safety Board Member Earl Weener, a statement to which Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) of the U.S. Senate’s subcommittee on housing, transportation and community development added “The train did make nine stops before coming to this curve. So clearly, the brakes were working a short time before” the accident.

“Assuming the braking system was working normally, this crash would not have happened” had a PTC system had been in place, according to Grady Cothen, a former Federal Railroad Administration safety official well-familiar with the capabilities of Positive Train Control.

Positive Train Control, a system  which utilizes satellite-based technologies including track-side monitors, Global Positioning, in-cab signaling, and the capability to remotely analyze train performance and emergency brake application, thus over-riding human error factors, was dictated by the U.S. Congress to be installed and operational by the end of 2015. This action was developed after another tragic accident involving massive passenger injuries and fatalities resultant from a collision between a Los Angeles, CA MetroLink train collision at Chatsworth, CA in which the locomotive engineer and sole occupant of the engine’s cab was texting on a cell phone and missed trackside signals set to inform him that a Union Pacific freight train was positioned ahead of him in the opposite direction. But the expense of installation of the system, intended for the monitor and safety control of all trains carrying either passengers or hazardous materials led to lobbying by the railroad industry-advocate Association of American Railroads’ to delay the launch of PTC nationwide until 2020.

“This incident, if anything, heightens the importance of additional safety measures, like that one (PTC)”, stated U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, who added “And speaking for myself, I’d be very loath to be more flexible or grant more time” for the institution of PTC.

The acting leader of the rail labor organization of which Rockefeller is a member, Anthony Bottalico of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, was quick to defend Rockefeller’s actions, even though he revealed that the locomotive engineer “basically nodded” prior to realizing the train was going too fast and “dumped the brakes” only six seconds before the accident. “He caught himself, but he caught himself too late,” said Bottalico, the members of whose union were later ordered from the site by NTSB officials for breeching an agreement of silence regarding statements made to the news media.

Unidentified law enforcement officials, meanwhile, said that Rockefeller told police at the scene that his mind was wandering prior to his realization that there was a problem, and had described himself as being “in a daze” before his tardy emergency braking actions.

Meanwhile, the NTSB “Go” team’s post-accident debriefing of the locomotive engineer was begun Monday afternoon, but, as Bottalico related, was then postponed because of the “trauma of the whole thing and the lack of sleep” for Rockefeller. It will resume later in the week.

PTC technology, being of the cutting edge of quality, is far from inexpensive. While estimates conducted five years ago predicted that it would cost $275 million to outfit Metro-North with PTC, MN President Howard Permut told Progressive Railroading Magazine in July, 2012 that other infrastructure projects would most likely have to be delayed to fund purchase and installation of PTC. A request made in conjunction with the 2007 estimate for federal high speed rail funding through the New York DOT to help MN pay for the installation is still awaiting NYDOT action.


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