A former Long Island Rail Road signalman pleaded guilty on Friday to lying about having inspected a faulty electric line to a switch that caused a 2019 Memorial Day train derailment.
Stuart Conklin, 66, a former resident of Ronkonkoma, admitted in federal court in Central Islip that he lied about having inspected the faulty connection, known as a rail bond, in April 2019. A month later, it resulted in a crash east of Speonk between an eastbound and westbound train.
He faces up to two years in prison, federal authorities said. Sentencing was set for May 17 by United States District Judge Joanna Seybert.
Conklin had said in a report he was required to file that he had inspected the bond during his usual work as he walked the track, and that it passed inspection. Video footage from an LIRR camera showed that Conklin did not do the inspection during his shift that day, prosecutors said.
“As dramatically evidenced by the derailment, the rail bond Conklin falsely claimed to have inspected was a critical piece of railroad equipment, essential to ensuring the safety of passengers,” Breon Peace, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement.
“While thankfully no one was seriously hurt in this accident, it is a stark reminder of the importance federal oversight plays in the safety and integrity of our transportation system,” he said.
An attorney for Conklin, Anthony LaPinta, contended that his client was being “scapegoated” for another LIRR employee’s error.
“Mr. Conklin conducted a track inspection and submitted a report with the wrong date,” LaPinta said Friday in a statement. “The derailment occurred because an LIRR track operator mistakenly directed an oversized, empty train to the wrong track. The LIRR’s efforts to use Mr. Conklin as the scapegoat for the derailment is very troubling.”
Conklin, now a resident of Magnolia, Texas, was not charged with causing the accident. He resigned from the LIRR on May 31, 2019, six days after the two trains crashed and derailed, according to court papers.
No one was injured in the early Saturday morning crash that forced the evacuation of 30 passengers from the eastbound train; the westbound train had no passengers. The collision ripped up hundreds of feet of track, prosecutors said.
It took about 100 LIRR workers to repair the damage, but service was not restored to the regular schedule on the line until the following Monday. The Memorial Day weekend is one of the busiest on the LIRR for holiday travel to the Hamptons and Montauk on the South Fork.
Conklin’s duties included performing regular inspections of rail bonds — electronic jumpers around joints in the rails of a railroad track to ensure continuity of conductivity for signal currents.
The rear of the westbound train in Speonk did not register in the LIRR signal system as occupying a section of side track, causing the eastbound train to be cleared to pass on the main track when there was not enough space to do so, prosecutors said.
“A subsequent LIRR investigation determined that the rail bond that Conklin had falsely indicated he had inspected on April 26, 2019, was broken and that the broken rail bond was the cause of the signal malfunction and the derailment,” prosecutors said in a statement.
MTA Inspector General Daniel G. Cort said Friday that “falsifying inspection reports puts the safety of the public and MTA employees and property at risk. Individuals, like Conklin, who shirk their responsibilities and endanger others should be held accountable.”
The investigation into the incident also revealed that cell-site data from Conklin’s phone showed that on a number of other occasions, he was not at work when he was supposed to be, court papers say.
On one of those occasions, in March 2019, the complaint said, Conklin reported that he happened to be by the site where the break was eventually discovered, checking for vandalism.
Conklin’s cellphone indicated he was more likely in Ronkonkoma during that shift, according to officials.