Federal investigators have concluded that a fiery crash between a commuter train and an SUV that killed six people in the suburbs in 2015 was extra deadly because of an unusual rail design, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Monday.
The Metro-North Railroad train crashed into an SUV on the tracks at a crossing in Valhalla, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of New York City. The impact sparked an explosion, and flames blasted into the passenger area, burning out the first car of the train. The driver of the SUV and five people aboard the train were killed. More than a dozen other people were injured.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators found that about 340 feet (100 meters) of electrified rail was pulled up from the ground, penetrated the SUV’s fuel tank and then sliced into the train, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity.
The rail was an under-running or under-riding design, in which a metal shoe slips underneath the electrified third rail, rather than skimming along the top. Questions were raised after the crash about whether the collision caused the shoe to pry up the third rail.
Metro-North, which operates in New York and Connecticut, is believed to be the only U.S. commuter railroad with the under-riding rail configuration.
NTSB investigators are also recommending risk assessments be conducted for grade crossings, the official said.
The board is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Washington, and investigators are expected to present their final report on the crash.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North, “will carefully review any safety recommendations” made by NTSB investigators, MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said.
Passengers were trapped in the fiery, mangled wreckage and tried to pry open the doors to escape. One passenger, whose hands, shirt and hair were on fire, shattered an emergency box and then pried the doors open before leading a group of passengers out of the wreckage.
The SUV’s driver, Ellen Brody, had stopped in traffic on the tracks, between the lowered crossing gates. Witnesses said Brody got out of her SUV to inspect the damage to it before driving forward and being struck by the oncoming train.
Brody’s husband is suing Metro-North, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the train’s engineer, saying the crash was caused by a badly designed grade crossing and improper warning signs. Alan Brody says his wife must not have realized she was on a railroad track.
After hearing from the AP about the NTSB’s findings, he noted Monday that courts also are being asked to weigh the crash and its causes. He said he’ll continue pressing the MTA to modernize and improve the railroad.
“There are substantial systemic issues at stake here, and, you know, somebody has to take it on,” he said. “I’m dead serious about it. I have a reason to be dead serious about it. They (officials) didn’t lose anyone.”
A data recorder showed the train’s engineer hit the emergency brakes and sounded the horn as the train bore down on the Valhalla crossing, traveling 58 mph in a 60 mph zone, the NTSB has said.
(Balsamo reported from Los Angeles.)
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