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December 2, 2013 11:33 pm
US crash investigators on Monday shone the spotlight on the actions of the driver of the train that crashed in The Bronx on Sunday morning, saying it was travelling at 82mph in a 30mph zone and braked only just as it crashed.
Earl Weener, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, spoke to reporters after investigators examined data recorders from the train, which came hurtling off a bend by the Hudson river at 7.20am.
The driver of the train – four of whose passengers died – had initially told investigators, according to reports on Sunday, that he had applied the train’s brakes before entering the sharp curve but they had not responded.
Data recorders from the locomotive at the train’s rear and the front-end cabin, from which the driver had been operating, showed the train’s throttle was applied until six seconds before the train ceased moving completely, the NTSB said.
Brake pipe pressure fell to zero only five seconds before the train halted, they said. A reading of zero could result either from a brake application or a severing of the brake pipe during the crash.
“We don’t know whether the brakes went to zero pressure because of a valve change, or the train broke up,” Mr Weener said. “That will be determined.”
Mr Weener described the brake application and idling of the throttle as “late in the game” and said they and the train’s derailment would have been “close together”.
The 82mph speed exceeded even the 70mph limit on a straight section that the train had travelled on immediately before entering the sharp bend at Spuyten Duyvil station in The Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City.
Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, said after the NTSB’s statement via Twitter, the microblogging site, that the crash had been a “stark reminder” of the importance of protecting New Yorkers’ safety.
“When the NTSB’s investigation concludes, we will make sure that any responsible parties are held accountable,” he wrote.
The crash marked the first fatalities on Metro-North trains – which serve suburban destinations north of New York City – since New York State’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency took over their operation in 1982.
Mr Weener stressed that the preliminary data from the recorders told investigators only what had happened, not why it had.
The initial findings may increase pressure on passenger railways throughout the United States to introduce “positive train control” – an automated signalling system that can override the driver in the instance of an error and halt trains which are going too fast.
US Congress has ruled that such control systems must be installed on much of the rail network by 2015. Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad – the busiest US commuter rail system, also run by the MTA – in November signed a $482m contract with Germany’s Siemens and Canada’s Bombardier to introduce PTC signalling on their systems.
Richard Barone, director of transportation for the New York-based Regional Plan Association, a lobby group, said a finding of driver error would underline the urgency of such a project.
“If this turns out to be the cause, it’s definitely further evidence of the need to have this technology installed and operational,” Mr Barone said.
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