US: Train going too fast at curve before wreck

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

YONKERS, New York — A commuter train that derailed over the weekend, killing four passengers, was hurtling at 82 mph (132 kph) as it entered a 30 mph (48 kph) curve, a federal investigator said Monday. But whether the wreck was the result of human error or brake trouble was still unclear, he said.

Asked why the train was going so fast, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said the information on the locomotive's speed was preliminary and extracted from the Metro-North train's two data recorders, taken from the wreckage after the Sunday morning accident in the Bronx.

He also said investigators had begun interviewing the crew members, but he would not disclose what the engineer had told them.

Weener said the throttle went to idle six seconds before the derailed train came to a complete stop — "very late in the game" for a train going that fast" — and the brakes were fully engaged five seconds before the train stopped.

He said investigators were also examining the engineer's cellphone — apparently to determine whether he was operating the train while distracted.

Asked whether the tragedy was the result of human error or faulty brakes, Weener said: "The answer is, at this point in time, we can't tell."

As investigators mined the data recorders for information, workers righted the fallen cars along the curve, a bend so sharp that the speed limit during the approach drops from 70 mph (112 kph) to 30 mph (48 kph).

The wreck came two years before the federal government's deadline for Metro-North and other railroads to install automatic-slowdown technology designed to prevent catastrophic accidents. But with the cause of Sunday's wreck unknown, it was not clear whether the technology would have made a difference.

The engineer, William Rockefeller, was injured and "is totally traumatized by everything that has happened," said Anthony Bottalico, executive director of the rail employees union. He said Rockefeller, 46, was cooperating fully with investigators.

"He's a sincere human being with an impeccable record that I know of. He's diligent and competent," Bottalico said. Rockefeller has been an engineer for about 11 years and a Metro-North employee for about 20, he said.

The NTSB has been urging railroads for decades to install technology that can stop wrecks caused by excessive speed or other problems. Congress in 2008 required dozens of railroads, including Metro-North, to install the "positive train control" systems by 2015.

But the systems are expensive and complicated and cannot prevent an accident if there is a brake failure. Railroads are trying to push back the deadline a few years.

While the train's seven cars and locomotive were gradually returned to their tracks Monday, the 26,000 weekday riders on the railroad's affected Hudson Line faced a complicated commute.

On Sunday, the train was about half full, with about 150 people aboard, when it ran off the rails around 7:20 a.m. while rounding a bend where the Harlem and Hudson rivers meet. The lead car landed inches from the water. In addition to the four people killed, more than 60 were injured.

Many victims had been released from hospitals by Monday afternoon.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on NBC's "Today" show that he thinks speed will turn out to be a factor in a crash he called "your worst nightmare."

The MTA identified the dead as Donna L. Smith, 54; James G. Lovell, 58; James M. Ferrari, 59; and Ahn Kisook, 35. Three of the dead were found outside the train; one was inside.

Lovell, an audio technician who had worked the "Today" show and other NBC programs, was traveling to Manhattan to work on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, longtime friend Janet Barton said. The tree-lighting ceremony is Wednesday night. (AP)

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