Metro-North train nearly hit Bronx crane operator before Robert Luden was killed

A southbound train pulls into the New Rochelle

A southbound train pulls into the New Rochelle Metro-North station. (March 27, 2012) (Credit: Angela Gaul)

Three weeks before a Metro-North worker was killed last month by a train sent down the wrong set of tracks, a crane operator in the Bronx was forced into an emergency maneuver to avoid being slammed by a train running on track closed for construction, Newsday has learned.

The Metro-North crane operator has filed a notice of claim with the railroad -- the necessary first step before a federal lawsuit is lodged -- because of the post-incident stress he's experienced, according to his attorney, George Cahill.

"The crane operator was holding the boom over the tracks," Cahill said of the May 4 incident, which occurred late at night on tracks near the Woodlawn station in the Bronx. "All of a sudden there's a train going 70 miles per hour coming at him."


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Cahill said his 43-year-old client, whom he declined to identify, had to quickly yank the boom back.

The boom nearly struck the head of the train, which was headed to Grand Central Terminal, according to Cahill.

"He's been sickened by the incident," Cahill said of his client, who has been a railroad employee for 22 years. "It was a very close call."

Metro-North officials have declined to comment on the incident.

Without offering details, the National Transportation Safety Board on Monday mentioned the May 4 near miss in a report that cited Metro-North's "ineffective" safeguards for protecting its own workers.

Specifically, the federal safety agency said Metro-North could be doing more to prevent accidents like the one that took the life of Robert Luden, a track worker of 27 years and the father of two from East Haven, Conn.

Luden, 52, was killed by a New Haven Line train going 70 mph around noon on May 28 while supervising work on a section of track that was supposed to be out of service near West Haven, Conn.

The NTSB report said the New Haven-bound train was sent down the wrong set of tracks by a student working in Metro-North's command center in Grand Central Terminal. The supervisor assigned to train him had temporarily walked away when the student, without approval, removed a computerized block on the track that's supposed to keep trains away, the NTSB said.

The trainee, who sources familiar with the incident say previously worked as a bus driver, as well as the senior railroad traffic controller, have each been suspended from their jobs.

Luden's death also had the head of the union representing Metro-North engineers and conductors calling for stricter oversight of an inexperienced workforce since 10 percent of the railroad's employees are eligible for retirement this year.

RAILROAD LOOKING TO IMPROVE WORKER PROTECTION

Cahill said his investigation of the May 4 incident shows a miscue occurred that was similar to the one that resulted in Luden's death.

He said that after the incident involving his client, frantic track workers phoned the rail traffic controller asking him if he knew the tracks had been placed out of service.

"He said, yeah, I know," Cahill said.

According to him, the railroad traffic controller was given a 30-day suspension.

Two days after the incident, Metro-North officials added a "software enhancement" to its computerized track authorization device that forces railroad traffic controllers to reaffirm their intention of removing the blocking devices, according to the NTSB report.

That enhancement was not enough to prevent Luden's death, said NTSB officials, who called the procedures currently in place "ineffective."

The NTSB wants Metro-North to include so-called "shunting devices" that railroad workers clip to rails and send a stop signal alert to train engineers. It also alerts the controller that the tracks are off limits.

Metro-North officials said that the shunts would only work on certain sections of railways, like those along the New Haven Line, that use overhead or catenary wires. They say they wouldn't be feasible on rail lines powered by third rails.

They said they are working on a "technological solution" that would allow the roadway worker to start and stop all blocks of tracks.

Cahill, a former railroad worker himself, argued that the railroad "could have done much more" to prevent Luden's death.

Cahill has won a number of multimillion-dollar settlements working on behalf of the estates of Metro-North workers killed on the job.

Among those he represented was the family of a Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad worker killed when a dispatcher mistakenly removed a block that allowed a 70 mph train to speed down a section of track in Woburn, Mass., in January 2007. Two track workers were killed in that incident, which the NTSB cited on Monday in urging Metro-North to employ shunts on its rail lines.

Cahill is also representing seven conductors and engineers injured in the May 17 derailment of a New Haven-bound train near Bridgeport, Conn., which lead to a collision with an oncoming train. More than 70 people were injured in the crash.

METRO-NORTH A NO-SHOW AT COMMUTER COUNCIL MEETING

Members of the railroad's biggest commuter group, the Connecticut Metro North Rail Commuter Council, were hoping to question Metro-North brass about the May incidents at its monthly meeting Wednesday night, but railroad officials declined their invitation, according to the group's chairman. Instead Metro-North sent a letter response.

The railroad has cited the two federal safety probes -- one on the Bridgeport derailment and the other involving Luden's death -- as the reason why it cannot publicly respond in greater detail.

"It was very disappointing that they chose to lawyer up realizing there are questions that concern our commuters," said Jim Cameron, the council's chairman. "At what point do the taxpayers and the riding public get a chance to have their questions answered? Apparently not anytime soon."

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