Mark Lennihan, Associated Press
YONKERS, N.Y. — The revelation that a New York City commuter train derailed while barreling into a sharp curve at nearly three times the speed limit is fueling questions about whether automated crash-avoidance technology could have prevented the carnage.
Safety authorities have championed what's known as positive train control technology for decades, but the railroad industry has sought to postpone having to install it because of the high cost and technological issues.
Investigators haven't yet determined whether the wreck, which killed four people and injured more than 60 others, was the result of human error or mechanical trouble. But some safety experts said the tragedy might not have happened if Metro-North Railroad had the technology, and a senator said the wreck underscored the need for it.
"This incident, if anything, heightens the importance of additional safety measures, like that one," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, which also is served by Metro-North. "I'd be very loath to be more flexible or grant more time."
The train was going 82 mph as it entered a 30 mph turn Sunday morning and ran off the track, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said Monday. He cited information extracted from the train's two data recorders; investigators also began interviewing the train's crew.
The speed stunned officials — "I gulped," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the NTSB findings make it clear "extreme speed was a central cause" of the train derailment and vowed to "make sure any responsible parties are held accountable" after investigators determine why the train was going so fast.
"At this point in time, we can't tell" whether the answer is faulty brakes or a human mistake, Weener said.
Weener sketched a scenario that suggested that the throttle was let up and the brakes were fully applied way too late to stave off the crash. He said the throttle went to idle six seconds before the derailed train came to a complete stop — "very late in the game" for a train going that fast — and the brakes were fully engaged five seconds before the train stopped.
It takes about a quarter-mile to a half-mile to stop a train going 82 mph, according to Kevin Thompson, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman.
Investigators are not aware of any problems with the brakes during the nine stops the train made before the derailment, Weener said.
Weener would not disclose what investigators know about the engineer's version of events, and he said the results of drug and alcohol tests were not yet available. Investigators are also examining the engineer's cellphone; engineers are allowed to carry cellphones but prohibited from using them during a train's run.
The engineer, William Rockefeller, "is totally traumatized by everything that has happened," said Anthony Bottalico, executive director of the rail employees union.
"He's a sincere human being with an impeccable record that I know of. He's diligent and competent," Bottalico said. Rockefeller, 46, has been an engineer for about 11 years and a Metro-North employee for about 20, he said.
Positive train control, or PTC, is designed to forestall the human errors that cause about 40 percent of train accidents, and uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or going the wrong way. The transportation safety board has urged railroads to install PTC in some form since 1970, and after a 2005 head-on collision killed 25 people near Los Angeles, Congress ordered rail lines in 2008 to adopt the technology by December 2015.
Metro-North has taken steps toward acquiring it but, like many rail lines, has advocated for a few more years to implement a costly system that railroads say presents technological and other hurdles.
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