The Long Island Rail Road is looking for answers as to why two rush-hour trains collided in Jamaica Friday, while also defending itself from criticism that it did not provide sufficient information to riders throughout the incident.
LIRR officials said that about 6:15 p.m. Friday, the front cars of an eastbound Huntington train and a westbound train from Montauk sideswiped each other at a switching point just east of Jamaica station. The trains were both moving slowly and nobody was injured, LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said Friday.
The LIRR's safety department is leading an investigation into the cause with assistance from the Federal Railroad Administration.
"No new information about the investigation is available at this time," LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said Saturday.
Robert Halstead, a private railroad safety consultant and accident investigator, said accidents like the one on Friday can be caused by a malfunctioning switch-and-signal system or an engineer's error.
If the latter, "It could have been failure to observe a signal. It could have been a failure to react," Halstead said. "There could be a fatigue issue there. . . . It could be a distraction."
The last sideswipe accident on the LIRR in 2008, also near one of the many switches at the busy Jamaica station, was caused by an engineer violating a signal, LIRR officials have said.
Kevin Sexton, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 269, which represents LIRR train operators, said Saturday that speculating about the roles of the train engineers in the collision is "premature."
"I'm confident that the railroad is going to examine the factors to determine the cause," Sexton said.
Shawn Gough, 40, said he was in the lead car of the westbound train when it was struck by the other train.
"I actually saw the headlights of the other car coming in my window. I was like, 'What the hell is that?' he said. "We felt the impact. The car shook. We heard the metal on metal and glass breaking."
Gough works as a Broadway musical conductor and had to miss a performance because he was four hours late.
"It could have been much worse. It was a hair away from being a tragedy," he said.
Meanwhile, the LIRR also fended off criticism of its communication efforts Friday. The collision caused hours of delays for LIRR customers -- some of whom said they received little reliable information about what was going on.
"They said they didn't have any information and they were apologetic," said Samjhana Khanal, who was on the westbound train. It took Khanal more than six hours from when she boarded at East Hampton to get to Penn Station.
In a statement Friday, LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said "the complete lack of information provided to those riders on the affected trains" and on the railroad's website "was not only appalling but a clear violation of the LIRR's Pledge to Riders."
Donovan said the LIRR -- relaying information directly from emergency dispatchers and first responders -- issued 85 email and text message alerts, 91 tweets, 96 website posts and updates, nine posts to message boards at Penn Station, Jamaica and Atlantic Terminal and eight Facebook notes.
"We will review our procedures to determine what we could have done better," Donovan said. "We are always seeking to improve the timeliness of information we provide to customers during difficult situations when there are more unknowns than knowns."
Service on the Long Island Rail Road returned to normal Saturday after two passenger trains going in opposite directions sideswiped each other Friday night in a "minor collision" just east of the Jamaica station, disrupting the rush-hour commute for several hours, officials said.
The cause of 6:15 p.m. collision between a Huntington-bound train and a double-decker train going from Montauk to Jamaica remains under investigation by the LIRR and the Federal Railroad Administration,LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said.
"The trains obviously should not have collided," LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said during a news conference Friday night. "We will look at every possible thing that could have caused that."
The left side of the first of 12 Huntington cars struck the first car of the other train, LIRR officials said. There were no injuries reported.
Photos from the scene showed one train car jammed up against a double-decker passenger train, which leaned off the tracks.
It took about two hours for most of the passengers on the two trains to get off at the station, where they joined exasperated rail customers with their eyes glued to screens posting information about train arrivals.
The trains were removed from the tracks Friday night and taken to an LIRR yard for additional inspection, Donovan said.
With Ellen Yan, Alfonso Castillo and Candice Ruud