December 2013 Spuyten Duyvil derailment
Aerial view of the derailment
|Date||December 1, 2013|
|Time||7:19 a.m. EST (12:19 UTC)|
|Location||Near Spuyten Duyvil station|
|Rail line||Hudson Line|
|Operator||MTA, Metro-North Railroad|
|Type of incident||Derailment|
|Cause||Driver error, overspeeding|
|Injuries||At least 61|
On the morning of December 1, 2013, a Metro-North Railroad Hudson Line passenger train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the New York City borough of the Bronx. Four of about 115 passengers were killed and another 61 injured; the accident caused $9 million worth of damage. It was the deadliest train accident within New York City since a 1991 subway derailment in lower Manhattan, and the first accident in Metro-North's history to result in passenger fatalities.
Early investigations found that the train had gone into the curve where it derailed at almost three times the posted speed limit. The engineer, William Rockefeller, later admitted that before reaching the curve he had gone into a "daze", a sort of highway hypnosis.
The leader of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team investigating said it was likely that the accident would have been prevented had positive train control (PTC) been installed. A prior federal mandate requires installation of the system by 2015. Due to a number of other recent accidents involving Metro-North trains and tracks, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) demanded improved safety measures, which Metro-North began implementing within a week of the accident.
In late 2014, almost a year after the accident, the NTSB released its final report on the accident. After reiterating its earlier conclusion that PTC would have prevented the accident entirely, it found the most direct cause was Rockefeller's inattention as the train entered the curve. There were other contributing factors. A medical examination following the accident diagnosed sleep apnea, which had hampered his ability to fully adjust his sleep patterns to the morning shift which he had begun working two weeks earlier. The report faulted both Metro-North for not screening its employees in sensitive positions for sleep disorders, and the FRA for not requiring railroads do such screening.
The train involved in the accident was the second southbound Hudson Line train of the day, leaving Poughkeepsie, the line's northern terminus, at its scheduled departure time of 5:54 a.m. EST. It was powered by a GE P32AC-DM locomotive, capable of running on either diesel fuel or electricity from a third rail. Since Metro-North uses push-pull trains, it was situated at the northern, or rear, end of the train to minimize noise on the underground platforms at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, its final destination, where it was scheduled to arrive at 7:43. It carried about 115 passengers.
Engineer William Rockefeller, a 15-year Metro-North veteran who had started as a clerk in the stationmaster's office at Grand Central and then spent 10 years as an engineer, was operating the train from the cab car, at the front of a consist of seven Bombardier-made Shoreliner passenger coaches, in a mix of Metro-North and Connecticut Department of Transportation livery,[note 1] two of which were closed off and used only for deadheading by employees. He had recently begun working the morning shift after working afternoons, a change he later told investigators he had made reluctantly, requiring that he leave his home in Germantown, approximately 27 miles (43 km) north of Poughkeepsie, at 3:30 a.m. for work. To make sure he had adequate rest before his shift, he had gone to bed at 8:30 p.m. the night before following a nine-hour shift the preceding day. He had arrived at work on time after a 43-minute drive, after which he bought a cup of coffee and a hard roll, filled out paperwork and attended a standard safety briefing, followed by tests of the train's safety equipment. Another veteran employee, Michael Hermann, who in his limited time working with Rockefeller had praised the engineer's "very smooth" train handling to other Metro-North employees, was the conductor; his one assistant leaving Poughkeepsie was Maria Herbert, with whom he regularly worked.
Once underway in predawn darkness that gradually lightened to full daylight, the train proceeded south along the two-track main line, also used by Amtrak for its Empire Service trains. From Poughkeepsie it continued through the mid- and lower Hudson Valley, often right next to the river. Under electromotor diesel power, it made all six of its scheduled stops in the upper, non-electrified portion of the Hudson Line in Dutchess, Putnam and Westchester counties without incident. After Croton-Harmon, the northern end of the line's electrification, where it picked up another assistant conductor, Chris Kelly, it was held up briefly. The next stop was Ossining, where it became an express, continuing under diesel power.[note 2] Between Ossining and the last stop, Tarrytown, Hermann and Herbert swept toward the center of the train, where they met briefly. After Tarrytown, with the train running only a minute behind schedule, they began returning to opposite ends of the train, taking seat checks from any passengers who might have boarded there. They were positioning themselves for where Metro-North's rules required them to be, so Herbert could join Rockefeller in the cab and call out signals after the last stop, Harlem–125th Street. Hermann, in the rear deadhead car with what he estimated to be six other employees, including Kelly, who he had instructed to do so as the train's light passenger load did not require a third conductor, began doing his paperwork for the trip and preparing for his next.
The train continued south over the next 14 miles (23 km) on a straight set of four tracks next to the river, all with third rails, past the four stations along the line in the city of Yonkers, where a permanent speed restriction of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) through downtown was augmented by a temporary 60 mph (97 km/h) limit around Ludlow due to construction. South of that station the train entered the Bronx. About 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of the Riverdale station, Rockefeller should have begun to slow the train down in anticipation of the curve immediately before Spuyten Duyvil station, below the Henry Hudson Bridge where the Harlem River Ship Canal flows into the Hudson across from the northern tip of Manhattan Island. Instead, he later said:
I [don]'t know how to explain it ... it was sort of like I was dazed, you know, looking straight ahead, almost like mesmerized. And I don't know if anybody's ever experienced like driving a long period of time in a car and staring at the taillights in front of them, and you get almost like that hypnotic feeling staring straight ahead ... I was just staring straight ahead ... [it was] that hypnotized feeling, dazed, that's what I was [feeling].
It was interrupted when, he felt, "something wasn't right with [the train]." Linda Smith, of Newburgh, who had boarded the train at Beacon with her sister Donna to see a choral performance at Lincoln Center, recalled that although she, too, was not fully awake, something seemed wrong. "It was bumpy and just seemed really at that point I was aware of going very fast." In the cab, Rockefeller initiated an emergency application of the brakes in an attempt to slow the train down. But it was already taking the curve.
At 7:19 a.m. the train derailed 100 yards (91 m) north of the Spuyten Duyvil station, 11.4 miles (18.3 km) north of Grand Central, just after it had passed the junction with the West Side Line's crossing over the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, where Amtrak's trains split off to go to Penn Station. In her passenger car, Linda Smith recalled the train turning sideways as the bumps she had felt gave way to bounces and seat cushions flew through the air. "It was like a movie going on around me." Debris entered the cars through the broken windows. Joel Zaritsky, a dentist from LaGrangeville headed to a convention, said it was like "severe turbulence on an airplane."
In the rear deadhead car, Hermann first heard "a little bit of like a metallic rattling," which was by itself not an unusual sound, but it just sounded a little bit odd." He recalled to investigators a day later that "the next thing I know my car had kicked and I was thrown from the fourth seat or across the coach up to the ceiling ... I dropped down. I went back up again and I slammed into the ceiling and then I slammed down into the floor." In the front, Herbert was sitting in the passenger seat behind the cab when "I looked up just to do what I was doing and a split second [later] I'm tumbling on the floor ... I think I hit the ceiling several times. I didn't even have time to react or to think what I was doing."
When the train came to rest, Hermann, despite a head injury and some bruises, took charge and reported the derailment to the dispatcher. He then worked with Kelly to coordinate the passengers and the emergency responders. In the front Rockefeller, who was mostly uninjured, freed Herbert, who was conscious but had also suffered a head injury, from the seat cushions that had piled up on her. Seeing that Hermann and Kelley had taken charge of the situation, he remained with her until he was taken to a hospital to be examined.
All seven cars and the locomotive left the tracks. Those in the rear remained next to the tracks; in the front, the cab came to rest just short of the Harlem River. Rockefeller, largely unhurt, got out and began aiding passengers. Trapped under seat cushions, Smith, too, was uninjured but unable to move; her sister was thrown from the train and was one of the four killed in the accident. Linda Smith was one of the 61 injured.
The four people killed were:
- Kisook Ahn, 35, of Queens, a recent Korean immigrant who was returning from her job at a nursing home near Ossining
- James M. Ferrari, 59, of Montrose
- James G. Lovell, 58, of Cold Spring, a veteran audio technician with 20 years of experience on the Today show who was on his way to the city to assist in setting up the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center
- Donna L. Smith, 54, of Newburgh, a former math teacher who worked as a paralegal, traveling with her sister Linda, who was performing with her choral group at Lincoln Center
Ahn was the only one of the four killed to be found inside the train after the derailment; the other three were thrown from the train as it derailed. All had been sitting in the front three cars.
The New York City Fire Department sent well over 125 firefighters to the scene to assist in the rescue operation. EMS workers were delayed in getting to some victims while they waited for power to be turned off to the third rails. All service on the Hudson Line was suspended as a consequence of the accident. The nearby West Side Line was reopened to Amtrak trains by 3 p.m. Survivors were taken to a family resource center set up at nearby John F. Kennedy High School; after all passengers were accounted for, it was closed that afternoon.
Service and repairs
For the day of the accident, Metro-North suspended all service on the Hudson Line south of Croton-Harmon. The next day, the first regular business day back from the Thanksgiving holiday, it restored limited service as far south as Yonkers, three stations north of where the derailment occurred, with shuttle buses providing service to the Van Cortlandt Park—242nd Street subway station, the northern terminus of the 1 train into Manhattan. Shuttle bus service was initiated between the Tarrytown station on the Hudson Line and White Plains on the Harlem Line. Westchester County offered free parking for the duration of the disruption in the lot it operates at the Valhalla station north of White Plains.
Metro-North was not the only passenger railroad to experience service disruption. Amtrak, whose Empire Service trains follow the West Shore Line tracks from the accident site to Penn Station, suspended all service between New York City and Albany that day, stranding college students and others relying on the train to return to school after the holiday. By the afternoon it had been restored, with delays due to reduced speeds and activity in the accident area.
The next morning, many of the 26,000 who commute to the city via the Hudson Line took the inconveniences and detours in stride. It was not the first time that services had been disrupted, and the fact that it had come about due to a fatal train wreck lent some of them perspective. "This is nothing; we have it great," said a receptionist as she sat on a bus. "We're living like kings and queens" compared to the grieving families of the dead. But some others said on future trips along the Hudson Line they would sit elsewhere in the train in case of another accident.
Some commuters temporarily switched to buses, or drove themselves. Across the Hudson, Rockland County offered extra express bus service across the Tappan Zee Bridge to Tarrytown. Drivers noted a slight increase in traffic on the Saw Mill River Parkway as well.
MTA crews worked around the clock to remove the derailed cars and repair damage caused to the tracks when they left it. They spent the day after the crash replacing ballast and laying new concrete ties. By the evening of Dec. 2 all the cars had been righted and restored to the track. They were taken to the Croton-Harmon and Highbridge yards, where the NTSB impounded them for further investigations. Crews siphoned 900 US gallons (3,400 l; 750 imp gal) of diesel fuel from the locomotive before removing it, then cleaned spilled fuel from the site with other special equipment.
Limited service on one of the three tracks of the Hudson Line through the accident site was restored on Wednesday morning, December 4. Separate trains were combined to make the service possible. Commuters waiting at Poughkeepsie on the first train to run the same route at the same time told a reporter that they were surprised that Metro-North was able to get the line cleared and the trains running again so quickly. Some even expressed sympathy for Rockefeller. While they said they had no fears of the accident recurring, and indeed some said it was safer than driving, one woman was surprised that there had been no fail-safe systems that could have prevented the derailment. "I really thought they had that in place. This is the United States."
The derailment was Metro-North's first accident involving passenger fatalities in its 30-year history, and its first accident in New York involving any fatalities since a 1988 collision in Mount Vernon that killed one crew member. Two days later, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) director Joseph Szabo sent MTA head Thomas Prendergast a letter highly critical of the transit agency. Earlier that year, he observed, there had been a derailment on the New Haven Line serving Connecticut and Westchester County suburbs along Long Island Sound, a freight derailment on the Hudson Line on the very next curve south on the line, on the other side of the Spuyten Duyvil station (involving a CSX freight train), and an accident on the New Haven Line that killed a track worker. These had led to five deaths and 129 injuries. "The specific causes of each of these accidents may vary," Szabo wrote, "but regardless of the reasons, four serious accidents in less than seven months is simply unacceptable."
Szabo asked the MTA for "a serious, good faith commitment to the safe operation of the system." He said it needed to tell employees what, specifically, it would do to improve safety. He requested an answer in two days. "Immediate corrective action is imperative." Metro-North announced the day afterwards that it would institute a telephone line where employees could confidentially report "close calls." Prendergast later replied to Szabo that the railroad had held mandatory safety discussions for 4,000 employees at 20 locations since the accident.
The accident spurred further discussion of positive train control (PTC), which might have prevented it. After a 2008 wreck in Los Angeles, the FRA mandated all American railroads implement PTC by 2015. Many have resisted, however, complaining about the cost of the technology. Among those railroads have been both MTA commuter railroads, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, which have sought to have that deadline extended until 2018. In the wake of the Spuyten Duyvil derailment, U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a resident of Cold Spring whose neighbor James Lovell was one of those killed, has introduced legislation that would make low-interest loans and guarantees available so that commuter railroads like Metro-North could implement PTC. Eventually other congressmembers from the lower Hudson Valley joined as cosponsors.
MTA officials denied that money was the problem, noting that they had budgeted $600 million of the total $900 million estimated cost of PTC installation. Instead they pointed to doubts about the technology's efficacy for large commuter rail networks. On a radio talk show following the crash, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo conceded that PTC is "controversial ... [some people say] it's not what it's cracked up to be." The MTA itself said it was "untested and unproven for commuter railroads [of our] size and complexity."
Several days later The New York Times reported that the train had a device known as an alerter. It sounds an alarm when the train exceeds speed limits for 25 seconds and shuts it down after an additional 15 seconds if no action is taken by the engineer. It might have been able to prevent the accident; however it was in the locomotive, at the rear of the train, not the cab where Rockefeller was located.
While Metro-North used it only to prevent collisions, rail safety experts said it could easily be configured to force trains to slow down at curves such as Spuyten Duyvil, since it relied on signals sent through the rails themselves. It was also preferable to the traditional dead man's switch the cab was equipped with, which requires constant action and attention from the engineer. The MTA said it was considering doing so at 30 sites on the Metro-North and LIRR networks. On December 6, the FRA issued an emergency order requiring Metro-North to have two qualified crew members in the cab at any point where the speed limit drops by more than 20 miles per hour (32 km/h) until it installs that technology in cabs and at those sites. The next day Metro-North announced it was upgrading the signals at the Spuyten Duyvil curve and several others in the system; it would also lower the speed limit going into the curve so that it would be a less-than-20-mph drop and thus the extra engineer would not be necessary. U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York called on Metro-North to install cameras to monitor both the track and the engineers.
On December 12, the FRA went further. It ordered "Operation Deep Dive," a full safety review of Metro-North, in which every aspect of its corporate culture would be evaluated by a panel of rail safety experts. This was the first time the agency had taken this extreme step since 2006, following a series of accidents involving CSX freights.
In mid-March 2014, the agency released its report to Congress on the results of Deep Dive. Metro-North, it said, had a "deficient safety culture." The FRA identified "three overarching safety concerns:
- An overemphasis on on-time performance;
- An ineffective Safety Department and poor safety culture; and
- An ineffective training program."
It directed Metro-North to submit a plan for addressing these issues to it within 60 days. It was encouraged by the fact that many of the railroad's employees had cooperated thoroughly with investigators.
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was dispatched to the scene of the accident to investigate. It found that the train's brakes had been deployed seconds prior to the crash and that the tracks had no problems. From the train event recorders, it determined that the train was traveling at 82 miles per hour (132 km/h); the speed limit for the section of track involved is 30 miles per hour (48 km/h). The brakes had indeed been deployed, but had reached their maximum level five seconds after the train entered the curve.
After being lifted from where they had come to rest and restored to the track, the cars involved were impounded by the NTSB and taken to Metro-North's yards at Croton-Harmon and Highbridge. Rockefeller surrendered his cell phone and submitted samples for drug and alcohol tests. When it was reported that his attention had lapsed prior to the accident, investigators announced that they would be assembling a timeline of his 72 hours preceding the accident to see whether they could find any explanation.
Early reports suggested that Rockefeller had claimed the brakes failed, although experts pointed out that that was unlikely since the brakes were equipped with a fail safe device that activates them should it detect a pressure drop. A freight train had derailed on the other side of the same station four months earlier, leading to some early speculation that there was a problem with the track in the area.
The NTSB soon determined that there was no problem with the tracks or the signals. Rockefeller's blood tests came back negative for both alcohol and drugs; his cellphone similarly was out of use at the time of the accident. But, he admitted when investigators were able to interview him, he had drifted into a "daze" until just before the accident when he tried to stop at the last minute.
Two days after the accident, Anthony Bottalico, head of the Association of Commuter Railroad Employees (ACRE), the Metro-North union, said that engineer William Rockefeller had "nodded" off before the accident. He likened it to white-line fever experienced by truckers. Rockefeller had recently started working the early shift instead of in the afternoons; however on the day of the accident he had apparently had adequate sleep and arrived at work on time from his home in Germantown, where he was seen to be alert and vivacious. Rockefeller's attorney confirmed the remarks. Shortly after Bottalico's comments, the NTSB barred ACRE from further participation in the investigation for disclosing too much information. A day later Rockefeller was suspended without pay.
In early April, federal investigators revealed that after the accident, Rockefeller had been diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea, a complication of the obesity he also suffered from, a complication which may have contributed to his moment of inattention. His blood had also been found to have a small amount of chlorpheniramine, an anti-histamine commonly found in over-the-counter cold medications. It is possible that sedative effects require that those medications be contraindicated for use while driving or operating heavy machinery and include a warning to that effect on their packaging. While he had initially denied taking any such medications to investigators, his lawyer said that would not justify a criminal charge, a step the district attorney's office said it was still considering at that point.
The NTSB's final report, issued almost 11 months after the accident, reiterated many of its earlier conclusions that positive train control would have prevented the accident by automatically applying the brakes in the curve, and that Rockefeller's sleep disorder was the likely reason for his loss of attention. It went on to fault Metro-North for not routinely screening for sleep disorders employees in positions defined by federal regulations as safety-sensitive, and the FRA for not requiring railroads to do so. Lastly, it said that the failure of the glazings, or the windows on the cars, contributed to the loss of life and severity of injury.
Within a week of the accident, attorneys for several passengers had filed notices of claims, the first step toward filing a lawsuit, against Metro-North. Lawyers for a police officer riding the train to work said his injuries could prevent him from returning to duty and demanded $10 million. Denise Williams, a dentist headed to a convention in the city who required back surgery for a fractured spine after she was trapped under a heavy passenger car for several hours, also gave notice through her attorney, who questioned among other things why the railroad had not replaced hundred-year-old track near the derailment site.
Lawyers said it might be difficult for them to recover those amounts from Metro-North and the MTA if the cause of the accident turned out to be Rockefeller's lapse at the controls, since there would be far less liability on their part. New York law further limits potential damages in cases like these. Victims' lawyers said their goal was not so much the money but making sure the railroad installed PTC.
In early April, after the release of the FRA report, a New Windsor man who had been on the train filed suit. Eddie Russell named the MTA, Metro-North, the city and Rockefeller as defendants, seeking $10 million in punitive damages. "One has to question whether the culture at Metro-North which led to the deaths of four people, should be investigated for criminal actions," said Russell's lawyer, who also faulted the MTA for not setting up a claims process in the wake of the accident, forcing those seeking compensation to litigate at increased costs both to themselves and the agencies.
The office of the Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson reviewed the evidence gathered to see whether criminal charges, which could be as serious as negligent homicide, were warranted against Rockefeller. While criminal charges have been filed against the operators of vehicles in other recent deadly transportation accidents in and around New York City, and convictions have often resulted, defense lawyers said in this case it would be difficult to find a credible offense, since Rockefeller was exhibiting no clear sign of negligence such as alcoholism or cell phone use, and operating a vehicle while drowsy is not necessarily a crime. In 2012, prosecutors argued that Ophadell Williams, the driver of a bus on which 15 passengers died on their way to a casino in Connecticut, had knowingly endangered lives by repeatedly driving without adequate sleep. But the jury still acquitted him of all charges except operating a vehicle without a license.
In May 2015, almost a year and a half after the accident, the Bronx D.A.'s office announced it would not be filing charges against Rockefeller. "There was no criminality in the act, therefore no criminal charges," said a spokeswoman for Johnson, adding that he had made that decision several months beforehand. Rockefeller's lawyer, Jeffrey Chartier, said that since his client hadn't known of his medical condition, he could not be considered to be negligent. It was "the only logical conclusion", similar to what the NTSB had already found.
Chartier said Rockefeller was still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the accident. Linda Smith, a passenger whose sister Donna died in the accident, accepted Johnson's decision, saying it spared her the stress of having to relive the accident at a trial, stress a similar recent Amtrak accident was causing her at the time. She felt it was punishment enough for Rockefeller to have to live with his role in the accident. ""In a way, he's in jail forever, because he's got to live with this."
Rockefeller, who retired on a full disability relating to sleep apnea, sued the MTA for $10 million for failing to install a system to alert engineers when the speed limit is exceeded. While Metro-North initially denied Rockefeller a disability pension, he was allowed to appeal, and on December 23, 2016, Metro North announced that Rockefeller was being awarded a pension of $3,200-a-month. “The Pension Disability Medical Review Board reviewed the appeal and determined that Mr. Rockefeller is disabled from performing his function as an engineer and he is eligible now to receive his pension,” the MTA said of its decision. Rockefeller's lawyer declined to comment on the pension award but stated the lawsuit would continue.
- 2016 Hoboken train crash, later accident involving New York City-area commuter rail where engineer has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, possibly explaining why he lost awareness going into a station
- 2017 Washington train derailment, also involving a train that went into a 30mph curve at more than twice that limit
- Bourne End rail crash, similar accident in Britain where a sleep-challenged engineer may have momentarily lost attention and taken the train into a curve too fast
- Grantham rail crash, another British accident with a similar momentary lapse of the engineer's attention suggested as an explanation for why he disregarded signals and derailed the train by taking it into a misaligned switch
- Redondo Junction train wreck, worst rail accident in Los Angeles history, where engineer who claimed to have "blacked out" before going into a curve too fast
- Newton, Massachusetts, train collision, in 2008, where the engineer's sleep apnea was also blamed (albeit posthumously) for her inattention at a crucial moment
- O'Hare station train crash in 2014; may also have been caused by an overworked, sleep-deprived train operator
Other Metro-North accidents
- The two agencies share equipment for operation on the non-electrified Danbury and Waterbury branches of the New Haven Line.
- Despite the presence of electrification, Metro-North's dual-mode trains use it only when they enter the Park Avenue Tunnel, since New York City bans the use of diesel locomotives in tunnels. Similar bans apply to the Long Island Rail Road, where diesel trains must also be dual-mode.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to December 2013 Spuyten Duyvil derailment.|
- Metro North Derailment - Bronx, NY - NTSB
- NTSB Railroad Accident Brief: Metro-North Railroad Derailment - October 28, 2014