Mental Error by Engineer May Be Cause of Train Accident in NY

Four people were killed in the crash that occurred in early December when a MTA train, traveling about 50 miles per hour in excess of the recommended speed, failed to handle a curve as it approached the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. Investigation by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) appears to indicate that the engineer suffered some kind of mental lapse prior to the crash of the Metro North commuter train which was heading in to the City. The driver was immediately suspended without pay.

Although he told the investigators he felt rested after getting about seven hours of sleep the night before, the 15-year veteran claimed to have been in a “daze situation”, according to his attorney. Some experts who have studied this phenomenon among train engineers view it as a form of “highway hypnosis” wherein the tedium and lack of variety of the traveling environment induce the engineer in to a trance-like state.

The NTSB initially has yet to identify any problems on the train or controls operating the track but it often withholds such determinations at the preliminary stages of an inquiry. Absent equipment failure or a defect involving the track, it is likely that the proximate cause of the accident is the negligence of this engineer. But the engineer should have had his foot on a “dead man pedal” which required constant downward pressure in order for the train to move. If he lost consciousness, the train should have slowed to a stop.  The NTSB will investigate whether this safety feature failed as well. The MTA revealed that the train does have an “alerter system” which sounds an alarm after 25 seconds of inactivity by the engineer and can automatically apply brakes if the engineer fails to respond in 15 seconds. But such a system was installed in the locomotive at the back of the train and this engineer was operating the train by remote from the front. This may provide an explanation as to why he was not alerted and why the automatic brake function failed to kick in.

In the meantime, injured passengers and the families of the deceased will likely assert personal injury claims against the City of New York, the State and the MTA based on the negligence.  One injured police officer riding the train intends to bring a claim alleging a design flaw in the track caused the accident. It appears that injured parties may raise a range of factors which contributed to this sad tragedy.

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