Metro-North crash: Track defects build over time, hard to see, experts say

Emergency workers arrive at the scene of a Emergency workers arrive at the scene of a Metro-North train crash in Fairfield, Conn. (May 17, 2013) Photo Credit: AP / The Connecticut Post, Christian Abraham

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Metro-North's state-of-the art rail cars that came with a nearly $1 billion price tag passed their first major safety test last week when a New Haven-bound train derailed and was struck by an oncoming train headed for Grand Central Terminal.

The vibrant red, Japanese-engineered M-8 cars, outfitted with safety features inspired by lessons learned from fatal crashes, are being credited with saving lives in an evening rush-hour collision May 17 that left 72 people injured.

But those cars -- each priced at $2.35 million -- were failed by the tracks they ride on, according to the preliminary findings of a National Transportation Safety Board probe of the crash.

On Friday, the NTSB said its investigation has centered on a joint bar, a steel fastener that railroad workers employ every day to bring together two sections of rail either after a break in the track or to level out rail of differing heights. In April, Metro-North workers repaired a cracked joint bar in the area of the derailment.

The NTSB has taken a section of the track where the accident occurred and sent it to Washington for analysis. Final results of the crash investigation may not be completed for six months.

Joint bars, which are commonly used on railroad tracks throughout the county, present unique challenges for commuter rails because defects created over time by the weight-related stresses of trains or the heat and cold can't be detected by the naked eye, track safety experts said.

"It can be very, very difficult to see (cracks) in a visual inspection," said Allan Zarembski, an engineering professor at the University of Delaware who's authored more than 160 research articles on railroad safety and engineering. "Cracks in a joint bar are hard to find. They can grow very rapidly."

Indeed, the section of track where the accident occurred was inspected by railroad workers on May 15, according to the head of the union that represents Metro-North track workers. Two inspectors did not see anything to suggest an accident was imminent, according to Chris Silvera, the secretary-treasurer of Local 808 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Two days later, the engineer of the eastbound train that derailed said he saw "an unusual condition" on the tracks as he approached the area of the crash at a speed of 70 mph, the NTSB said. He managed to bring the train to a stop before a Manhattan-bound train collided into it.

TRACK-RELATED ISSUES LEADING CAUSE OF DERAILMENTS

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Veteran track workers say there are dozens of joint bars in use on Metro-North tracks every day that go unnoticed by the riding public except for the ride-disturbing clickety-clack they emit when train wheels course over them.

Typically, one worker said, the joint bar will remain in place with steel bolts until workers can get out to do the more time-consuming job of welding broken rail together.

"They try to weld them back as quickly as they can because it doesn't make for a smooth ride," the worker said. "But it's still as safe as the weld."

However, Zarembski said his research has shown that joint bar cracks contribute to 200 trains in the United States being run off the track every year and represent the leading cause of track-related derailments.

Separately, the Federal Railroad Administration found that over the past decade, the leading cause of derailments -- some 8,700 instances -- were attributed to track-related issues, following by human factors, which contributed to some 5,300 trains running off the tracks.

Few derailments result in the loss of life, railroad experts said.

While not often deadly, Zarembski said, joint bar-related derailments are costly problems for railroads because they occur when trains are traveling at a high rate of speed.

"What happened at the Metro-North derailment is not out of character for a train derailment," Zarembski said.

To prevent these derailments, Metro-North and other major railroads employ ultrasonic equipment to detect even the most minute cracks or fatigue in joint bars and rail lines.

The Federal Railroad Administration requires inspections twice a year but, Zarembski said, commuter rails typically inspect more frequently than that. He estimates that some 200,000 joint bar cracks are detected annually before they may potentially result in derailments.

Metro-North is now inspecting joint bars throughout its system as a result of the Connecticut train collision. Officials with the commuter rail, the largest in the nation, have declined to comment on any questions related to the crash, citing the NTSB investigation.

TRAIN CARS BUILT WITH SAFETY IN MIND

While track conditions are gaining focus with investigators looking into the crash, Martin Schroeder, the chief engineer for the trade group American Public Transportation Association, and others say the good news is that train cars are getting safer.

In April, Metro-North announced that some 200 of the new M-8 cars are already in service on the New Haven line. Another 200 are expected to be added in the coming months.

The 2006 contract with Kawasaki Rail Car was for $713 million but could grow as high as $883 million, according to Kawasaki.

A key innovation in the new cars is the strengthening of corner posts that allow the car to absorb more of the impact of the crash and prevent the skin of the car from being torn away, according to Schroeder. As with car safety measures, the improvements have been developed through extensive work with test crash dummies.

"The industry has come a long way in making cars safer," Schroeder said.

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