On February 3, 2015, at 6:26 p.m. eastern standard time, a 2011 Mercedes Benz ML350 sport-utility vehicle driven by a 49-year-old woman, traveled northwest on Commerce Street in Valhalla, New York, toward a public highway-railroad grade crossing on the Harlem Subdivision of the Metro-North Railroad. Traffic on Commerce Street was heavy and congested when the driver turned northeast and entered the boundary of the highway-railroad grade crossing and stopped. The highway-railroad grade crossing consisted of two highway lanes (one for each direction) and two railroad tracks, and was equipped with reflectorized pavement markings, advance warning signs, flashing lights, and gates. The driver moved beyond the highway-railroad grade crossing boundary (stop line) and stopped adjacent to the railroad tracks. The grade crossing warning system activated and the gate came down, striking the rear of her vehicle. She then exited her vehicle and examined the gate. The driver then returned to her vehicle and moved forward on to the tracks. Meanwhile, Metro-North Railroad passenger train 659, consisting of eight passenger railcars, traveled north and approached the highway-railroad grade crossing at a speed of 59 miles per hour. The engineer from train 659 activated the train’s emergency brakes about 260 feet before the highway-railroad grade crossing and collided with the sport-utility vehicle at a recorded speed of 51 miles per hour.
The train and the sport-utility vehicle continued northbound, resulting in the damage of the electrified third rail on the west side of the track. The third rail detached, pierced the sport-utility vehicle, and then entered the railcar. The train and the sport-utility vehicle came to rest about 665 feet from the point of collision. An estimated 343 feet of third rail penetrated the first passenger railcar.
Metro-North Railroad estimated 645 passengers were onboard train 659 at the time of the accident. Five passengers died and nine passengers and the engineer were injured, all in the lead railcar. The driver of the sport-utility vehicle also died.
This report addresses the following safety issues:
Metro-North Railroad third rail design. Metro-North Railroad’s third rail system was not constructed to fail in a controlled manner or break away. The National Transportation Safety Board found that Metro-North Railroad’s third rail system was not constructed to break away when subjected to undesirable overloaded conditions such as those involved in this accident.
Grade crossings. There were three grade crossings within 2 miles of the Commerce Street grade crossing. The state of New York Department of Transportation has a policy that allows for the consolidation of grade crossings wherever possible. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the town of Mount Pleasant, New York, should take action to improve grade crossing safety.
Grade crossing risk assessment. The investigation found that the proximity of highway-railroad grade crossings with third rail systems belonging to commuter railroads or rail transit properties could increase the severity of highway-railroad grade crossing accidents. The National Transportation Safety Board found that conducting a risk assessment of such conditions could help mitigate this increased risk of grade crossing accident severity.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the accident was the driver of the sport-utility vehicle, for undetermined reasons, moving the vehicle on to the tracks while the Commerce Street highway-railroad grade crossing warning system was activated, into the path of Metro-North Railroad train 659. Contributing to the accident was the driver of the sport-utility vehicle: (1) stopping beyond the stop line, within the boundary of the highway-railroad grade crossing, despite warning signs indicating the approach to the grade crossing; and (2) reducing the available time to clear the grade crossing by exiting the vehicle after the grade crossing warning system activated because the driver’s attention was diverted by the grade crossing warning system crossing gate arm striking her vehicle. Contributing to the severity of the accident was the third rail penetrating the passenger compartment of the lead passenger railcar and the postaccident fire.
1 In this report, the term boundary is used for the reader to conceptualize the location of the sport-utility vehicle past the stop line of the highway-railroad grade crossing. This stop line indicates the point behind which highway vehicles are stopped or might be required to stop when the grade crossing warning system activates.
2 Third rail refers to a conducting rail by which electric traction power is delivered to trains. On this system, as with most systems, the conductor rail is placed on the outside of the running rails.