The first two passenger cars in Sunday's Metro-North train crash in The Bronx had red stripes and "State of Connecticut" logos. The pictures should remind this state that the accident could have happened here. It ought to have our full attention.
The derailment took place as the train was negotiating a sharp bend in the tracks near the juncture of the Hudson and Harlem rivers. The train derailed and buckled, some cars tumbled over, one scraped its way almost to the water. Four people died and at least 60 others were injured, 11 critically, according to authorities. Connecticut's condolences go out to the families of the victims.
It was the first Metro-North accident with passenger fatalities in the railroad's 30-year history, but not the first serious accident. In May, two trains collided near Fairfield, injuring scores of passengers, five critically. That month, a Metro-North track foreman was killed in an accident in West Haven.
Add a handful of minor accidents and a major power outage in September, and it has been a difficult year for Metro-North. Though the number of Metro-North accidents has been declining, the number of injuries this year, 123, is way above the decade's previous high of seven in 2007, the Associated Press reports.
This is unacceptable. One of the many reasons to use commuter rail is safety. It is imperative that trains be safe.
Speed was a factor in Sunday's derailment. Trains approaching the curve are supposed to slow from 70 mph to 30 mph. According to a National Transportation Safety Board announcement Monday, the train was traveling at 82 mph as it approached the 30 mph zone. The question is whether the excess speed was the result of a human or mechanical error.
Some news reports said the train operator attempted an emergency braking maneuver to slow the train because the brakes weren't working, though that has not been confirmed. The NTSB has recovered two data-recording "black boxes" and is reviewing them to determine the cause of the accident.
The accident raises additional safety issues.
The train was in a push configuration; that is, the engine was pushing seven cars from the rear. Though this is a common configuration going into New York City, questions have been raised about its safety. The NTSB and Federal Railroad Administration must resolve this question.
After a horrific crash in Los Angeles in 2008 that caused 25 deaths, Congress decreed that trains be controlled by a computerized collision-prevention system known as positive train control. Metro-North has an interim technology in place, but just appropriated $210 million last month to begin designing the new system.
It and most other commuter railroads aren't on pace to meet the deadline, which is the end of 2015. They cite funding, a still-evolving technology, interoperability agreements and other issues. This is an area where a serious federal infrastructure investment would be appropriate.
Of course, it wouldn't have stopped the train if the brakes weren't working. If they weren't, why was the train in service?
Were any passengers standing? This was an issue in the Fairfield crash, and exposed the fact that the railroad doesn't do a good job of keeping riders in their seats until the train has stopped. Since the Sunday train was an express and not scheduled to stop at the station it was approaching, perhaps all were seated, but it's a question that should be answered. As Metro-North riders well know, there often are passengers standing in the vestibules as the train pulls into stations, and it isn't a good idea.
Also, is there a way to secure luggage — in overhead bins or elsewhere — so it doesn't fly all over the place in case of a derailment? Being under falling luggage is akin to being caught in an avalanche.
Metro-North has been a success. It carries nearly 400,000 people a day, reducing pollution and energy use, and allowing the great New York economic engine to thrive. But the system must be brought up to world-class standards and kept there.