The Hoboken train crash that killed one and injured more than 100 commuters has shaken the confidence of train riders in the northeast and throughout the nation. If the initial crash wasn’t shocking and disturbing enough, revelations that NJ Transit was under a Federal Railroad Administration inquiry due to spikes in accidents was equally as disturbing. Further raising alarm, is the fact that FRA and other relevant agencies identified nearly 200 safety violations over a four-year period. For more on the safety violations identified, please see our previous blog post on this topic.
Also, in the aforementioned blog post, we mentioned that investigators were still working to obtain crash data from a number of sources including a second “black box.” Much of this evidence has now been recorded. While questions still remain, investigators have pieced together the remnants and data from the crash to provide a better picture of what occurred in the minutes and seconds before the train struck the station’s end of the line guard bumper.
Train Sped Up Before Crashing into the Station
National transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating and assessing the data it has uncovered, but the investigative agency has revealed some new details regarding the operation of the train in the minutes before the crash. Many of these new details come from the recently recovered second front-facing recorder.
According to the agency, there were no signs that something was amiss as the train approached the tunnel leading to the Hoboken train station. In fact, the agency reports that the train was moving forward at only 8 miles an hour in the minutes before the train crash. Furthermore, as the train moved through the tunnel, the engineer did ring the train’s bell and sound its horn to signal the vehicle’s approach. Thus, it seems that up to this point the engineer was around of his surroundings and operating the vehicle appropriately.
However, after activating the horn and bell, the train suddenly accelerates from its speed of eight to ten miles an hour to about 21 miles an hour. A train traveling at 21 miles an hour is traveling at roughly twice the permitted speed limit of ten miles an hour for this stretch of track.
Human Error? Mechanical Malfunction? Investigators say Data Recorder Only Reveals that Train Sped Up
While the record is essential in telling us what happened, the why behind these events is still unknown. While the event recorder information does show that the engineer accelerated the train in the moments prior to the crash, it does not reveal why the engineer took this action. On one hand, accelerating the train could have been the result of a simple human error. The fact that the engineer appeared to activate the emergency brake just moments before impact does suggest that human error is the case. However, others have speculated that the engineer may have intentionally sped up — perhaps to make-up time. Others speculate that the engineer did intentionally exercise control over the throttle, but erred in his action.
Could Positive Train Control Have Prevented this Accident?
Some safety advocates have raised the point that as far as deploying safety technologies are concerned, it is mostly irrelevant as to whether the engineer’s actions that caused the accident were accidental or intentional. That is, positive train control technology (PTC) can stop trains from accelerating or taking many other inappropriate actions. In fact, PTC is effective at preventing derailments and other accidents caused by excessive vehicle speed, train incursions onto the wrong set of tracks, other types of train collisions.
However, the implementation of PTC has been troubled since the outset. In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring development and installation of these systems on passenger and freight rail systems. Unfortunately, the law passed by Congress was an unfunded mandate and the original 2015 implementation proved to be unfeasible. While H.R.3819 – Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2015, provided railroads with a three-year extension to implement PTC, one wonders if Congress providing funding could have expedited the development and roll out of PTC.
One final caveat regarding PTC’s ability to prevent this accident is the fact that certain types of operators errors are outside the scope of PTC’s protective abilities. Furthermore, equipment malfunctions can also impact the efficacy of this safety system. As more details are revealed it will become increasingly clear as to why the crash occurred and whether PTC would have prevented it. The Pennsylvania train accident lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm will continue to provide timely updates regarding developments into this NJ Transit train crash investigation.