Rail infrastructure damage appears to be a result—not a cause—of the Dec. 1 commuter train derailment that killed four and injured many more.

Just days before the first four of seven Metro-North Railroad railcars went off the tracks on a curve by the Hudson River, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had announced a contract with a joint venture of Siemens Rail Automation and Bombardier Transportation Rail Control Solutions to implement positive train control (PTC) that might have prevented the crash.

Metro-North crews cleared the cars by Dec. 2. Spokeswoman Marjorie Anders says that generally, railcar weights range from from 84,000 lb to 102,000 lb and added that there is “a lot of damage to two tracks” that will require new ties, rails and signals along an approximately 800-ft stretch for two out of three tracks. Regular commuter service was expected to resume at 98% capacity Dec. 4 on the third track.

Preliminary findings seem to point to human error, not faulty rail. The National Transportation Safety Board has said that the train was traveling more than 80 mph when it hit the curve to the left, heading south into Manhattan. The speed limit on the curve is 30 mph. Media reports as of Dec. 3 point to the engineer, William Rockefeller, possibly passing out just before reaching the curve, then slamming on the brakes. The locomotive brought up the rear of the train.

“The trajectory of the train towards the water would have required lots of momentum to both leave the tracks as it came around the turn and then continue straight, dragging the cars along, says Jeffrey Levy, CEO of RailWorks Corp. “The train was doing what it wanted to be doing —keep going straight.”

After years of enjoying a good reputation most of the time, Metro-North has been hit first with Superstorm Sandy, then two accidents this May — a derailment in Connecticut on May 17 and a construction site accident that killed a foreman on May 28. The NTSB’s report on those incidents is not due until next year, but a section of rail with broken joint connectors was noted in its investigations.

In response to longtime Connecticut transportation advocate Jim Cameron, Metro-North president Howard Permut wrote a letter dated June 18 asserting that inspectors visually check all track twice a week. “As the NTSB reported, inspectors found a track defect two days before the May 17 derailment,” Permut wrote. “However, NTSB further noted that federal standards and guidelines currently in place did not require immediate action.”

Permut also noted that the Metro-North foreman was standing on a track taken out of service when he was hit by a train. “The Rail Traffic Controller overseeing this part of the railroad at the time of the incident was still in training,” he stated.

Metro-North, he added, hired Transportation Technology Center Inc., the research arm of the Association of American Railroads, to inspect all 750 miles of its track with infrared and ground-penetrating radar in a three-month contract. A spokesman for TTCI did not respond to an interview request by ENR press time.

Implementing Positive Train Control Systems

Just as airports are trying to implement NextGen air traffic control technology with limited funding, Metro-North and other rail service providers around the country are struggling to implement PTC. "It's like a smart GPS system. The rain is radio-ing its position to a control system about where it is in relation to fixed locations along the line," notes Levy. "If something goes wrong, the system signals the train and stops it. It overrides the engineer."

Just weeks before the Dec. 1 accident, Siemens and Bombardier signed a contract worth potentially more than $400 million, depending on first-phase results, to implement PTC for both Metro-North North and sister railroad Long Island Rail Road in phases by 2019. In a release at the time, Siemens noted that “excessive train speed or the overrunning of stop signals will be prevented by emergency braking. It is also expected to ensure more efficient service on the more than 1,100 track kilometers of track and to increase the transport capacity of these lines.”