Friday, April 24, 2015

When Will It End? Trains, Cars and Collisions

In light of yet another train crash involving a car on the tracks, travelers on New Jersey Transit and Metro-North are left wondering what can be done to prevent these crashes.

By Lyndsay Borko

Luckily, no one was killed. This time.

On Sunday April 19 at about 1 a.m., a car was hit by a north-bound New Jersey Transit train at Midland Avenue in Elmwood Park, N.J. The driver and her husband survived with what can be considered relatively minor injuries: 55-year-old Randa Sayegh hurt her neck and back, but was otherwise unscathed. Her husband, 58-year-old Bassam Sayegh, was thrown 30 feet and knocked unconscious, and needed 50 stitches in his leg, according to US Today.

This is just another in a string of train collisions with vehicles this year in the lower Hudson Valley. In January, a woman narrowly escaped when a south-bound train on the Port Jervis line in Tuxedo, NY struck the front of her car. In March, a Westchester woman avoided tragedy by breaking through the gates that came down on the back of her car at the crossing of the Harlem line and Roaring Brook Road. In February, six people were killed in a collision at Commerce Road in Valhalla, when a Harlem Line train struck Ellen Brody's SUV, which was trapped on the tracks. 

A Long History of Incidents

These 2015 incidents aren't the first to happen on Metro North and New Jersey Transit operated tracks. These train lines have a long history of accidents.

The Metro-North accident that still haunts commuters the most is the derailment near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. Until the February 3 collision, this was the deadliest wreck to take place in Metro-North history, killing 4 people and injuring numerous others. It is believed that speed was a factor in the December 2013 derailment, in which the train sped off the tracks and landed in the brush on the banks of the Hudson River.

In 2008, two cars became trapped on the tracks in Bedford Hills two months apart. Neither of the collisions caused injuries, with the drivers abandoning their vehicles before being hit. Two people were killed in a crash between a train and car in Redding, CT in 2012. Another incident in recent memory include the collision of two trains near the Bridgeport-Fairfield border in Connecticut, where an eastbound train derailed and hit a westbound train, injuring 70 people. It is also important to note a 1984 collision eerily similar to the February 3 disaster in Valhalla. Also at the Commerce Street crossing, a man died when his Chevy was hit by an oncoming passenger train. It is estimated that 1-5 accidents occur every year on Metro-North since 2004,

New Jersey Transit, which operates west of the Hudson, also has a lengthy track record. In February 1996, two trains collided at a junction outside of Hoboken when one train operator did not heed a red light. Both engineers and a passenger were killed, among 162 injured. At the time, it was the worst commuter train accident in the New York Metro area since 1958.

In November 2013, a police vehicle was struck as it sat near the tracks in Bridgewater, N.J on the Raritan Valley Line. The police officer was investigating a trespasser on the tracks when the empty passenger train struck the left side of his car. He was taken to the hospital with minor injuries. As recently as January of 2015, a three year old child was killed and seven people injured when a train on the Riverside line barreled into a car trying to beat the gate. Specifically at the Midland Avenue crossing, ranked by the Federal Railroad Administration as the riskiest railroad crossing in the metropolitan New York area, there have been 30 accidents, including two deaths and six injuries since 1976.

What Can Be Done?

These collisions span decades of Metro-North and New Jersey Transit's history. With crashes seeming to become more and more common, commuters are lobbying for change. Some people argue for better warning signals, such as brighter lights and louder sirens, to prevent drivers from crossing into the path of oncoming trains. Others suggest the warning signs and crossing arms be moved farther away from the tracks, allowing ample room for cars to back up if they find themselves trapped between the arms.

At the Valhalla crossing where six people perished, upgrades had just recently been installed, including brighter lights and new traffic signal control devices. However, $128,000 were set aside in 2009 to install a third set of warning lights 100 feet back to give drivers more warning time. The money went back into the agency's general coffers last year for an unknown reason. When The Associated Press asked state Transportation Department spokesman Beau Duffy if these extra warning lights could have made a difference in the horrific crash, he replied, “There’s a lot of unknowns here. It’s way too early to be guessing about what could have or couldn’t have made a difference.” His questionable reply was received poorly by commuters.

In New Jersey, a similar outcry is taking place. People are asking why, in all these years, are train crashes still so common on the commuter rails. At the time of the 1996 crash, Union leader Donald Abbott, the representative for about 300 NJ Transit engineers, claimed that signals had been faulty on the line for up to a year before the crash, while a representative from NJ Transit said that “The engineer may have ignored the signal or didn't see it.”

NJ Transit has a reputation for deflecting blame from itself, most recently with  the April 19 collision in Elmwood Park. NJ Transit ticketed the couple who were hit, saying that the engineer saw the driver try to maneuver around the gates. Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for NJ Transit said “NJ Transit urges everyone to obey all grade crossing warning systems at and near the railroad grade crossing at all times and not to engage in dangerous behavior by trying to drive around downed grade crossing gates.”

The driver involved asserts that there is no truth to the rail company's version, and that they are trying to protect themselves from liability by accusing her of deliberately driving around the gates.

The most common idea to prevent future accidents is to take any intersection of cars and trains out of the equation. People are suggesting that tunnels or bridges be built so that trains and cars could never possibly come into contact with each other. This would cost train lines a large sum of money, but in the end it would prevent accidents and the accompanying lawsuits.

In Rockland, special four-quadrant gates are being installed on CSX lines to prevent crashes. Other suggestions include installing a train control system that could take over a train at critical moments. Some have pointed out that installing sensors that would indicate to an engineer if a car was on the track could greatly reduce accidents. Another idea is installing spike strips that pop up when a train is coming, which would prevent drivers from driving onto the tracks, but would allow trapped drivers to move their vehicles out of danger.

Will Metro-North and New Jersey Transit Finally Take Action?

With all the collisions that have taken place on these two train lines, it is clear that something must be done to prevent them in the future. With so many suggestions about what can be done to prevent these tragedies, it is up to the rail lines to decide what will be best. For the sake of commuters, let's hope that these improvements are made soon, before more innocent lives are lost to preventable disasters. 

Lyndsay Borko is a commuter and a sophomore at St. Thomas Aquinas College, pursing a degree in Communications and minoring in Business and Performing Arts.

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