The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found last month that the death toll in the 2015 Metro-North Valhalla crash was exacerbated by the design of the railroad’s electrified third rail. On the evening of February 3, 2015, a Metro-North railroad train was passing through Westchester County, New York when it slammed into an SUV on the tracks at a crossing, creating a fiery crash and explosion that killed six people, injured a dozen, and forced the evacuation of hundreds more. The incident was the deadliest crash in the railroad’s history. After over two years of investigations, the NTSB has placed the primary responsibility for the crash on the driver of the SUV, but also found that the design of the railroad’s electrified third rail exacerbated the death toll and caused the resulting fire.
When the northbound Metro-North train struck the SUV, the collision created unusual violence as long lengths of a third rail running parallel to the train were lifted upward by the crumpled vehicle and flung one after another into the rail cars. Eleven sections of the third rail measuring a total of 343 feet penetrated the train, reaching as far as the second car and crushing passengers. The NTSB concluded that it was this third rail that caused the train to catch fire.
The third rail on a set of railroad tracks sits to the side of the main rails and carries power to the electric locomotives of the trains passing over it. Metro-North’s third rail design is unique from every other railroad system using a third rail in that it connects to the train via a device that runs along the bottom of the rail. As a result, when the third rail ends at an intersection, it curves slightly upward so that the train’s connectors can easily make contact again. When the train at issue struck the SUV, the steel bars of the third rail entered the vehicle and were guided upward until they entered the first car of the train.
The NTSB’s investigation focused on several factors, including signals at the crossing, the train engineer’s behavior, and the SUV driver’s actions. The investigators believe that Metro-North’s third rail should have been designed in such a way that it would break apart rather than holding together as the train pushed into it, piercing the body of the train and trapping passengers aboard.Dr. Xiaohu Liu, a transportation safety board analyst, stated that “Metro-North’s current third rail system may increase the severity of damages and injuries when accidents occur at or near grade crossing.” The NTSB approved several safety recommendations, including:
- Directing the Federal Transportation Administration, the New York State Department of Transportation, Metro-North, the PATH, the Long Island Railroad and the Philadelphia area SEPTA system to conduct risk assessments, and implement the findings thereof.
- Directing the town of Mount Pleasant, where the accident occurred, to act on a highway safety study on the rail crossing in question.
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