WASHINGTON (July 25, 2017) — An SUV driver’s actions are the probable cause of a deadly 2015 collision between the SUV and a Metro-North commuter train at a grade crossing in Valhalla, New York, the National Transportation Safety Board found Tuesday.
The SUV driver died, along with five passengers on the train, in the Feb. 3, 2015, accident. The rail passengers were killed when 343 feet of the third rail, which powers the train, penetrated the floor of the first train car and struck passengers.
The NTSB’s investigation found the driver of the SUV moved her vehicle into the path of Metro-North commuter train 659. Investigators found traffic at the Commerce Street grade crossing was congested when the driver entered the boundary of the grade crossing and stopped. The grade crossing warning system activated properly and a gate came down, striking the rear of her Mercedes-Benz ML350. Witnesses said the driver exited the vehicle and examined where the gate hit her SUV. She then got back into the driver’s seat and moved onto the railroad tracks and into the path of the oncoming train.
The train hit the vehicle at 51 m.p.h., pushing the SUV 665 feet down the track, while detaching the third rail. The introduction of sparks, flaming debris and fuel into the lead railcar started a fire.
As a result of the investigation the NTSB recommended local officials assess the safety of at-grade crossings, such as the Commerce Street crossing. The NTSB also recommended commuter railroads, like Metro North, that use third-rail power systems, at or near grade crossings, should assess their safety.
“Sadly, all of the NTSB’s work in railroad and highway safety to date did not prevent this tragic accident,’’ said Acting Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. “But the recommendations we issued today could help to avoid future tragedies. When people see railroad tracks, even at grade crossings, they need to think train, and maintain – or improve – their situational awareness. We recommended risk assessments by companies and agencies, and corrective actions as warranted by the assessment results,’’ Sumwalt said. “Any railroad passenger has the right to expect that everything possible is being done to assure their safety.”
The investigation found that Metro-North’s third rail system was not constructed to fail in a controlled manner or break away when subjected to overloaded conditions such as those involved in this accident. Also, the use of Metro-North’s current third rail system may increase the severity of railcar damage and serious injuries at grade crossing accidents.
The investigation ruled out the use of personal electronic devices or drugs and alcohol by both the SUV driver and the train engineer. Traffic signals, the performance of the train engineer and weather and track conditions were also ruled out as issues in this crash. There was no evidence to suggest the SUV driver unintentionally drove the vehicle forward due to the unconventional design of the SUVs transmission interface.
A link to the findings, probable cause and recommendations are available online at https://go.usa.gov/xR8hG . The final report will be posted in several days. The docket for this investigation is available at https://go.usa.gov/xRk37.