Feds: Train Was Going 82 in a 30-MPH Zone

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An NTSB investigator inspects the Metro-North track at the scene of the December 2013 train derailment.

Federal investigators say the Metro North commuter train that derailed Sunday was going 82 miles per hour as it entered a 30-mph zone in the Bronx. The officials say pressure in the brakes dropped to zero "which resulted in maximum braking" just seconds before the train came to a stop feet from the Harlem River.

At a briefing by the National Transportation Safety Board Monday, board member Earl Weener said the driver had been interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol. The NTSB would not disclose the contents of the interviews. The NTSB also said the driver's cell phone had been recovered.  

Weener also said "we are not aware of any problems or anomalies with the brakes," which had been applied nine times before Sunday morning at station stops. 

Metro-North now has the all-clear to begin working on the tracks. 

MTA spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said all of the trains have been righted and that repair work will begin on the tracks. "All the cars have been put back on rails and they're going to be towed to a yard where they're gong to be impounded by the NTSB for further investigation," Anders said. Anders said 26,000 daily riders should expect patched-together commutes for the near future. 

Also, Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board released a video taken at the derailment scene, showing rail cars strewn about on the wooded ground like abandoned child's toys. One rail car's windows were completely smashed through, and the tracks at points were shredded beyond recognition.

Also Monday, New York-Presbyterian Hospital said all but six of 16 patients it admitted after the crash have been released.  As of Monday afternoon, two of the six remained critical.

On Monday morning, passengers were frustrated, but largely patient.  Standing on the crowded elevated 1 train platform Caroline Louissiant, 48, from Yonkers, who lives near the derailment, now needs an extra hour to get to her job on Wall Street.

“I don’t have a choice, it’s the only way to get to work so, it’s the only thing I can do is take Metro-North," she said. "It’s a little frustrating, and it’s a little scary with the derailment.”

Chuck Whitesell, 50, lives near Poughkeepsie, and has a long commute to his job in Times Square, he needs nearly an hour and 40 minutes on a good day. Getting off one of the first shuttle buses arriving in the Bronx, he said this adds an additional 30 to 40 minutes to his commute. But he’s pleased, so far, with Metro-North’s service.

“I thought it was really well organized, they had everything lined up from the time we got off at Yonkers station to her, people directing you, plenty of buses,” he said.

At Grand Central Terminal, some commuters complained about standing room only trains, but other early riders said their trains were relatively empty. Metro-North Railroad spokesman Aaron Donovan said no major delays were reported during the early part of the rush hour.

Lincoln Cleveland, 56, from Bedford Hills, which is about 40 miles outside of the city, commutes to Wall Street everyday. He said his train was more crowded than usual. And today, he couldn’t stop thinking about his train crashing.

“We saw a train, as trains usually do, coming in along beside us, and I’ve never had this thought, but I thought, ‘uh oh,’ double derailment,” he said. “So that’s what visuals on the news will do to you.”

The MTA identified the victims as Donna L. Smith, 54, of Newburgh; James G. Lovell, 58, of Cold Spring; James M. Ferrari, 59, of Montrose; and Ahn Kisook, 35, of Queens. Three of the dead were found outside the train; one was inside. Autopsies were scheduled for Monday.

Lovell, a 58-year-old father of four, worked as an audio technician for the “Today” show and other NBC programs.

“Jim was a beautiful person, and I think I'm kind of hit harder in a way.  I guess it's a shame is really what it is,” his friend Seth Gallagher said.

One of Lovell’s children, Finn, a high school senior said on Twitter: “I wasn't the son of a victim. I am the son of Jim Lovell. I hope to be even half of the man he was.”

The NTSB said its investigators could spend up to 10 days probing all aspects of the accident that toppled seven cars and the locomotive at a bend in the Bronx where the Hudson and Harlem rivers meet. The speed limit on the curve is 30 mph, compared with 70 mph in the area approaching it, Weener said.

The agency said it would consider whether excessive speed, mechanical problems or human error played a role in the crash.

Though the cause is not yet known, the NTSB has been urging railroads for decades to install technology that can stop derailing caused by excessive speed, along with other problems.

A rail-safety law passed by Congress in 2008 gave commuter and freight railroads until the end of 2015 to install the systems, known as positive train control. PTC is aimed at preventing human error - the cause of about 40 percent of train accidents. But the systems are expensive and complicated. Railroads are trying to push back the installation deadline another five to seven years.

"They've known that they needed to set the resources aside so that positive train control could be implemented," former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told WNYC. "This is not something that should have been a surprise."

Metro-North is in the process of installing the technology. It now has what's called an "automatic train control" signal system, which automatically applies the brakes if an engineer fails to respond to an alert that indicates excessive speed.

Such systems can slow trains in some circumstances but not bring them to a halt, said Grady Cothen, a former Federal Railroad Administration safety official.

Sunday's accident came six months after an eastbound train derailed in Bridgeport, Conn., and was struck by a westbound train. The crash injured 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor. In July, a freight train full of garbage derailed on the same Metro-North line near the site of Sunday's wreckage.

Two data recorders retrieved from the Metro-North train may provide information on the speed of the train, how the brakes were applied and the throttle setting, said Earl Weener, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB was downloading data from a recorder previously found in the rear locomotive in the train. A second recorder was found in the front car of the train and has been sent to Washington for analysis, Weener said.

Investigators plan to conduct interviews Monday or Tuesday with the engineer and conductor, Weener said. He also said clues into Sunday's derailment could be found from a signaling system operated by dispatchers at a central location.

(With the Associated Press)