Golf-ball sized rocks that hold rail ties in place may have come loose, leading to last month's derailment of a Metro-North train in Connecticut that injured more than 70 people, federal safety and railroad officials said Wednesday.
Two days before the May 17 accident, Metro-North track inspectors noticed the loose rocks -- or ballast -- and placed their discovery on a short list for repair, according to the officials.
Inspectors found "inadequate support ballast" and "indications of vertical movement" of the track, according to a preliminary report on the crash released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board. This means that the rail ties which hold tracks in place may have been unstable when the New Haven-bound train came through during the Friday evening rush hour.
The repairs were never made for reasons that remain unclear.
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said inspectors noticed the issue while using a hi-rail vehicle to check the tracks on May 15, during one of their three-times-a week inspections. She did not offer a timetable for when the repair was slated.
Chris Silvera, the head of the union representing track workers, told Newsday that the inspectors noticed the loosened ballast and, by hand, tamped down the area before noting the issue in a report to superiors.
"What they saw they took care of right then and there," said Silvera, the secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 808. "It's up to the company to schedule repairs based on their reports."
Acting MTA chairman Fernando Ferrer said Wednesday that the agency is conducting its own review of the crash as well as of the May 28 death of a foreman who was fatally struck while working on the tracks in West Haven, Conn.
"There are other things that are ongoing with respect to our own review of the incidents," said Ferrer, who opened the monthly MTA board meeting with a moment of silence to honor the dead track worker, Robert Luden, 52, of East Haven, Conn.
Aside from the ballast issue, the NTSB had been looking at a joint bar found near the site of the derailment last month. The steel joint bar, which is used to hold together sections of rail that might have broken apart or to level rail of differing heights, was sent to the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters from more tests.
The NTSB said that in April, Metro-North workers had repaired a cracked joint bar near the derailment site, while MTA officials said they had actually replaced it.
Shortly after 6 p.m. on the Friday of the crash, a New Haven-bound train going 70 mph came off the rails near the spot where the loose rock was discovered. An oncoming train slowed, but ended up colliding with the derailed train, sending passengers hurtling through rail cars.
The engineer of the oncoming Manhattan-bound train managed to knock his speed down to 23 mph before the crash after seeing smoke ahead coming from the derailed train, according to the NTSB and railroad sources.
The crash resulted in $18 million in damage, according to the NTSB's preliminary estimates.
Its findings Wednesday on the crash, while preliminary, suggested that the derailment, like the accident that took Luden's life, could be linked to human error or miscalculation.
Luden was working on a section of track that was supposed to be off limits while construction was under way for a new station in West Haven, Conn.
Railroad sources said the train was mistakenly sent down the tracks by a railway traffic controller new to the job who was monitoring the flow of trains on the New Haven Line from a command center in Grand Central Terminal.
The two rail traffic controllers who were monitoring trains when Luden was killed have been suspended without pay, according to Metro-North.
Last week, Anthony Bottalico, the head of Metro-North's largest union, suggested that Metro-North managers are attempting to blame workers for the accidents while ignoring large-scale retirements that have thinned the railroad's ranks of veteran workers.
"Managers and employees alike see no leadership on this railroad," Bottalico, the general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees said in letter to Metro-North president Howard Permut obtained by Newsday.
Metro-North is facing the loss of 10 percent of it's 6,000-person workforce this year as workers who have been with the commuter rail from its 1983 start become pension eligible for the first time.