New Jersey Transit had 150 accidents in five years; driver quizzed, has no memory of crash

AP, Reuters

New Jersey Transit trains have been involved in more than 150 accidents that caused more than $4.8 million in damage to tracks or equipment since 2011, and the commuter rail has paid more than $500,000 to settle safety violations, according to federal data.

Federal Railroad Administration information shows that NJ Transit settled 183 safety violations — ranging from employee drug and alcohol use to violations of railroad operating rules or practices — since Jan. 1, 2011. The settlement payments include about $70,000 for more than a dozen safety violations in 2014 and 2015. Statistics for the current year are not yet available.

Months before Thursday’s deadly commuter train crash in Hoboken, New Jersey, federal rail officials found dozens of violations during an audit focusing on NJ Transit’s safety and operations, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Saturday.

The official, who was familiar with the railroad administration audit, spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about an ongoing investigation.

The railroad administration began an audit in June after noticing an uptick in rail incidents and found “dozens of safety violations” that needed to be fixed immediately, the official said. The commuter rail agency was fined as a result of the audit, the official said, adding that federal agencies are continuing to work with the railroad to ensure compliance with federal rail safety guidelines.

There were 25 accidents in 2015 and 10 in the first seven months of 2016, but none caused injuries or death, federal data showed. Most of the incidents occurred at low speeds and more than half were in train yards.

On Thursday, a commuter train smashed through a steel-and-concrete bumper and hurtled into the station’s waiting area, killing a woman on the platform and injuring more than 100 other people.

The train’s engineer, Thomas Gallagher, who was among those injured in the crash, has been interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board, officials said, but the agency provided no further details about the interview in a news release Saturday.

During an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Gov. Chris Christie says it’s still not clear why the train was traveling so fast.

The Republican governor said there were several possible reasons, such as engineer error, a medical emergency or a mechanical failure. But he said people should let the National Transportation Safety Board “do their work,” adding that “you don’t jump to conclusions, you let the facts lead you to the appropriate conclusion.”

The NTSB also retrieved an event recorder from the locomotive at the rear of the train and investigators are waiting to download speed and braking information it contains. Investigators haven’t been able to extract a second recorder from the forward-facing video camera in the train’s mangled first car because it is under a collapsed section of the train station’s roof.

The signals on the tracks leading to Hoboken Terminal appear to be working normally and officials completed a walking inspection of the track, finding nothing that would have affected the performance of the train, the NTSB said in an update Saturday. Investigators have obtained video from other trains that were inside the train station when the crash occurred.

Signs posted at a New Jersey Transit maintenance facility in Hoboken, dated February, said there had been 10 incidents involving trains in the prior two months, including five derailments. The sign said the “serious incidents reflect a dangerous trend” and that the main cause of the incidents appeared to be caused by human error.

A spokesman for New Jersey Transit didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The engineer of the New Jersey commuter train that crashed on Thursday told investigators he was fully rested but has no memory of the incident, and a recovered data recorder was not working, a National Transportation Safety Board official said on Sunday.

The derailed train at a Hoboken station killed a 34-year-old woman on the platform and injured 108 people during the morning rush hour. The terminal has some 60,000 people pass on a typical weekday.

NTSB Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr told a news conference that the agency was still in the “fact-gathering phase of the investigation.”

New Jersey Transit said on Sunday that all rail service into and out of the Hoboken terminal remained suspended.

Thomas Gallagher, a 29-year New Jersey Transit veteran who was injured when the train derailed, told investigators the train was running at 10 miles an hour when it was approaching the station, Dinh-Zarr said.

Investigators at this time could not ascertain the speed of the train when it was near the station.

When interviewed by investigators, Gallagher said he conducted various procedures, including checking the train’s speedometer, and put his cellphone away during the trip.

He also said he had no memory of the accident.

The train’s conductor, meanwhile, told investigators he “didn’t recall anything unusual” before the crash, Dinh-Zarr said.

One of the data recorders recovered was not working, but there is another one that is newer, Dinh-Zarr said.

“We are hopeful it would be working,” she said.

While waiting for possible information from the second data recorder and a full review of available videos, investigators could not verify what steps Gallagher may have taken to slow or stop the train before the crash, according to Dinh-Zarr.

The NTSB official reiterated the agency found nothing on the track that would have affected the train’s performance.

Recovery of evidence has been slowed due to damage to the station’s columns, leaving the facility unstable. Environmental and structural problems have delayed the extraction of the second data recorder and forward-facing video recorder that could help investigators understand the causes of the crash.