Federal authorities investigating last week’s deadly Metro-North commuter train crash in Valhalla, N.Y., are focusing on an electrified “third rail” unique to that railroad that speared the first and second train cars.
The collision last Friday killed five commuters and the driver of an SUV who witnesses say became stuck on the tracks by a lowered crossing gate. The impact caused the train, traveling 58 miles per hour at the time, to push the SUV about a thousand feet down the track where it erupted in a giant blaze that quickly consumed the first rail car.
The severity of the crash took many safety and railroad authorities by surprise. Last week, Robert Sumwalt, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official leading the investigation, said investigators are looking at “what types, factors, or conditions could have allowed that third rail to be ingested by the rail car.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, Metro-North uses an unusual third rail design that electrifies the train by making contact with a device called a “shoe” that runs underneath the rail and transmits power. NTSB investigators are trying to determine, among other considerations, whether a different overrunning third-rail would have performed the same way.
The collision caused a dozen 39-foot sections of the electrified third rail to skewer the first train car through the floor and another piece to penetrate the second car. Although it isn’t clear to what extent the steel rails caused the deaths and injuries aboard the train, engineer Steven Smalls, who helped pull passengers from the fiery wreckage, said the third rail severed the limbs of at least one passenger.
A lawyer who was involved in the litigation surrounding another deadly Metro-North train crash in December 2013 in the Bronx told the Wall Street Journal that the train’s shoe probably caused the third rail to dislodge and spear through the train floor.
“As the [train] is bouncing up, the shoe is pulling up on the rail, and pulled the third rail up, out of its mount and into the train itself, spearing the train,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
Investigators are also looking at what factors caused the train to burst into flames. Railroad experts believe the blaze was caused by fuel from the SUV meeting 700 volts of current from the third rail, sparks resulting from the collision, or both.
NTSB officials said the agency’s investigation of the crash could take up to a year to complete.
Source: Wall Street Journal