Federal Team Begins Investigation of Fatal Harlem Line Metro-North Accident (Updated)

Car-train crash took six lives

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

A photo of the burning and wrecked Harlem Line train.

A photo of the burning and wrecked Harlem Line train.

In the wake of the fiery Tuesday evening (Feb. 3) car-train crash on the Metro-North Harlem Line, which killed six people and injured more than a dozen more, Hudson Valley officials offered both expressions of grief and concrete steps to aid the public, especially commuters, and determine why the disaster occurred — and prevent a similar disaster in the future.

As they reacted on Wednesday, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington arrived in the Hudson Valley and immediately began an investigation expected to last a week or more onsite and for months after that in further analysis and study.

The Harlem Line winds through Putnam County, and temporary suspension of a significant part of its service brought repercussions not only to the eastern end of Putnam served by that route.

Metro-North announced Thursday (Feb. 5) that regular train service had resumed with the morning rush hour, but advised riders to expect delays as trains slowed when passing through the site of the accident.

In the accident, a sports utility vehicle stopped on the tracks at a highway crossing just beyond the Westchester County community of Valhalla, shortly before the train arrived at the site. The Metro-North train hit the vehicle and the collision set off an intense blaze that left parts of the train charred and smoldering.

The driver of the SUV and five train riders died; another 15 passengers were injured, according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who toured the devastated site on Feb. 4.

Wednesday evening, after an NTSB press briefing and more details from local emergency and law enforcement officials emerged, news media in Westchester reported that the dead car driver was 49-year-old Ellen Brody, of Edgemont, winding her way back from her job in Chappaqua.

One of the victims in the burnt train car was identified as Walter Liedtke, 69, curator of European art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, who lived in Bedford. The other four were Eric Vandercar, also of Bedford; Joseph Nadol, 42, of Ossining; Robert Dirks, 36, of Chappaqua; and Tomar Aditya, 41, of Danbury, Connecticut.

The NTSB team reported at an early evening news briefing in Westchester on Wednesday that the collision apparently forced the electrified third rail up into the first two train cars. Contact between the rail and the SUV’s gasoline caused the fire, they said. As graphic photos from the site testified, an inferno soon engulfed the first car.

Medical personnel declared Wednesday that one injured rider remained hospitalized in critical condition, while a second was in serious condition, and that a half dozen less severely hurt also were hospitalized. The specific train involved in the crash is thought to have had several hundred riders and typically carries 650 or more passengers.

Disruptions ensued

With the NTSB review underway, Harlem Line train service functioned under constraints Wednesday. To accommodate passengers, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North’s parent, provided bus service to carry riders to still-functioning lengths of track. It likewise suggested Harlem Line commuters switch to the Hudson or New Haven lines instead.

Metro-North said Wednesday afternoon that “regular service through this area is not expected to resume until a full investigation is complete, the infrastructure is fully assessed, and repairs are made” — a process that could ostensibly take weeks or months. Metro-North promised the public that “as more information becomes available, we will notify you as soon as possible.”

Maloney outlines federal initiative

During a Wednesday afternoon telephone press conference, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said that while details of this particular accident awaited investigation, it reconfirmed his belief that Metro-North and other railroads must move expeditiously to install positive train control technology (PTC).

He said the upgrade was needed to improve the capacity of the rail systems to avoid accidents by maintaining constant train location data and having the capacity to stop trains when danger is signaled and humans cannot respond for whatever reason. “We have the technology to make us all safer,” he said.

He likewise said that rail crossings could benefit from installation of adapted PTC technology, which he described as Wi-Fi- and GPS-based and able to detect obstacles on the track and signal or even stop a train. According to Maloney, railroad-crossing accidents accounted for 95 percent of rail fatalities across the country. Furthermore, he said, New York state had 5,304 such crossings.

The congressman said that legislation he sponsored last year that passed the House Transportation Committee, will, if it becomes law, make available to commuter rail lines such as Metro-North access to an existing fund of $35 billion for loans and loan guarantees to install PTC.

“I want to take the resource excuse out of the equation,” he said. Maloney said he was equally concerned about the safety of oil trains and other potentially dangerous shipments that move along the freight line on the western side of the Hudson River.

He also said he was working on new legislation that would, among other things, have the federal Railroad Administration set new achievable deadlines for systems like Metro-North to install new technology. Metro-North has said they are committed to installing some version of PTC, but the management has been less clear on just when the project will be completed, although 2018 has been cited by a spokesperson.

The new legislation would also make $100 million available annually to states to move road-level crossings to safer locations.

In his discussion of rail safety, Maloney invoked the memory of the Metro-North accident on the Hudson Line in December 2013 that killed four people, including Philipstown’s Jim Lovell, a personal friend. He mentioned that Lovell’s widow, Nancy Montgomery, a Philipstown town councilor, is now on his staff and that their children go to the same Haldane school together.

After the 2013 accident, Metro-North came under sharp criticism from both federal elected and rail regulatory officials, including Maloney. At this point Maloney sounded a more subdued tone. “I would rather move forward than point fingers,” he said.

Putnam County officials offer condolences, aid

In a statement released by her campaign committee, Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell on Wednesday said: “My thoughts and prayers go out to the individuals, families and friends affected by the Metro-North tragedy. Let us remember how precious life is and not take a single moment for granted.”

Her administration also became involved in efforts to bridge the transportation gap in the aftermath of the accident.

From Carmel, Vincent Tamagna, Putnam County’s transportation manager, said Wednesday morning (Feb. 4) that “we’re assisting Metro-North” with alternative commuting arrangements for Harlem Line riders. The Harlem Line serves stations in Brewster and the Towns of Southeast and Patterson in Putnam and continues on into Pawling and other points in eastern Dutchess County. Its partial shutdown “really affects the eastern part of the county,” Tamagna said.

He noted that the MTA “is providing buses” to accommodate riders marooned by the closure of the tracks “and we’re providing whatever overflow [capacity] they need. Some of our buses are out there helping,” he noted. “We’ve been working on this since about 3 o’clock this morning.” Putnam County runs a bus system in the eastern side of the county and overseeing it is one of Tamagna’s responsibilities.

He said that the Wednesday morning rush-hour commute using the alternative means “went well. Things were coordinated” among MTA, Putnam County and other jurisdictions, he said. “I think they got out in front of it.”

Wednesday evening, at its formal monthly meeting, the Putnam County Legislature took note of the crash as well. Acting as chairperson, Legislator Ginny Nacerino suggested they close the session “with a moment of silence in memory of the victims of the horrific Metro-North crash which occurred yesterday in Valhalla. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families as well,” she said.

The legislators, legislative staff, and public then observed 32 moments of silence, before Nacerino quietly closed the meeting.

Kevin E. Foley contributed reporting to this article.

Photo courtesy of the Committee to Elect MaryEllen Odell and JB@anabolicapple


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