NEW YORK – Safety on one of America’s busiest commuter rail services was under the spotlight Wednesday after a packed passenger train slammed into a jeep, killing six people north of Manhattan.
It was the worst of three deadly crashes in less than two years on the Metro North line that carries around 280,000 passengers a day.
The woman driver of a jeep, which became stranded on the tracks, and five rail passengers were killed in Tuesday’s rush-hour accident, which ripped up tracks and ignited a major explosion.
Fifteen other people were injured, seven of them seriously, in what should have been a monotonous but totally safe journey home to the suburbs after a busy working day in America’s largest city.
Investigators began sifting through the evidence on Wednesday and part of the Metro North Harlem line has been suspended until further notice with alternative buses laid on for commuters.
“Our goal is to find out not only what happened but really find out why it happened so that we can issue safety recommendations to try and keep this from happening again,” said Robert Sumwalt, from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
He said the on-site investigation would take five to seven days, but said it could be 12 months before all findings were completed.
Last year, the NTSB criticized Metro North Railroad for safety management problems it said were present in five accidents between May 2013 and March 2014.
In December 2013, a train travelling nearly three times the recommended speed derailed in the Bronx when the driver briefly nodded off. Four people were killed and 67 passengers injured.
In May 2013, two commuter trains collided at rush hour in Fairfield, Connecticut, injuring more than 70 passengers and severed a key rail link.
The NTSB has highlighted safety gaps at Metro-North and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and failings in Federal Railroad Administration regulations, inspection and oversight.
Had previous NTSB recommendations been implemented by the FRA, many of the safety issues encountered in these accidents could have been prevented, it said in a report last November.
The train slammed into the SUV around 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, triggering an explosion and fire.
The blast caused the electrified third rail of the train tracks to rise and ram through the train, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
“This is a truly ugly and brutal sight,” he said.
The train had departed from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan and the collision occurred in Valhalla, just outside New York.
Pictures posted on Twitter showed a train car ablaze with thick black smoke billowing into the evening sky.
Others showed what appeared to be the same carriage, gutted by smoke and fire and with its windows shattered.
Frantic passengers had to evacuate by breaking glass on the doors to get out, passenger Neil Rader told NBC television. He added that he saw 50 to 60 ambulances at the scene.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” he said.
Justin Kaback, 26, a passenger in the third train car, was doing his daily commute home when the train felt like it hit a bump, he told The Wall Street Journal.
But then people began entering his car from the front of the train, reporting gas smells.
“I started moving,” Kaback said. “Nobody wanted to yell out, ‘The train’s on fire’ because there would have been a panic.”