NY transit officials review safety after train-car collision

AP News
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Posted: Feb 25, 2015 1:17 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Transportation officials said Wednesday they are reviewing safety practices at railroad crossings throughout suburban New York including adding warning signs, red-light cameras and sensors that would alert a train of the presence of a vehicle on the tracks after an SUV collided with a Metro-North commuter train, killing six people.

The chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North Railroad and the Long Island Rail Road, said the agency is considering all possible safety enhancements that would prevent such deadly accidents from happening again. It is also partnering with a nonprofit that educates the public about the dangers at rail crossings.

"We're not trying to blame motorists," MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast told board members on Wednesday. "We want to do it to raise the level of awareness and raise the level of sensitivity (at crossings)."

The Feb. 3 crash sparked an explosion and fire that burned out the first car of the train and sent pieces of third rail stabbing through the passenger area. The woman driving the SUV and five men on the train were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. Although the exact cause of the collision has not been determined, Ellen Brody's SUV was stuck inside the railroad crossing gates moments before the train hit. Instead of backing up, she drove forward onto the tracks.

The crossing where the crash occurred in the Westchester County community of Valhalla has no barrier between the street and the tracks, and such crossings present safety issues, Prendergast said.

"A safe grade crossing is no grade crossing: where you do not have vehicles and tracks going over at the same grade," he said.

In rare instances, the MTA has been able to elevate or lower the tracks, such as with a project at a Long Island Rail Road crossing years ago that cost $85 million, he said. But that type of major improvement is costly, time-consuming and can't work everywhere, he said.

"That's where you layer in technology, in the form of flashing lights, gates, and other means of warning motorists to get off (the tracks)," Prendergast said.

A major focus of safety improvements will be teaching drivers how to cross railroad tracks properly, which is why the MTA is seeking the help of Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit that educates the public about the dangers of crossings.

It's difficult to warn motorists and pedestrians about oncoming trains because the amount of time that passes between the moment the gates lower and the moment of impact varies drastically depending on how fast the train is moving and what type of train it is, Prendergast said.

"If a train is traveling 60 miles per hour, you've got to have 30 seconds," he said. "If the following train is at 15 miles per hour, you'll have twice as much time (to get off the tracks)."