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New rail safety rules, technology should cut crash risk, experts say

A sport utility vehicle remains crushed and burned

A sport utility vehicle remains crushed and burned at the front of a Metro-North train, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Valhalla, N.Y. Credit: AP / Mark Lennihan

Technological improvements and increased safety regulations over the past several decades have drastically reduced the risk of deadly railroad crossing accidents, and should have done so in Valhalla on Tuesday night, experts said.

From January 2011 until November 2014, there were 11 accidents involving trains striking vehicles at the 126 grade crossings throughout the Metro-North system, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Those accidents resulted in two deaths in 2012 and one death in 1984.

During that same period, the Long Island Rail Road, which has 295 crossings, reported 16 crossing accidents involving a train striking a vehicle. They resulted in 11 deaths.

Nationally, there are fewer than 300 deaths each year at rail crossings -- a drop of more than 50 percent over the past 20 years, according to the FRA.

The Commerce Street crossing where six people were killed Tuesday in Valhalla was the site of at least one other accident in October 1984 that resulted in the death of a motorist.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said he uses the crossing every morning.

"That location has always been worrisome because I see people trying to get across," Astorino said.

Lance Sexton, 31, who works nearby, said he and his co-workers constantly complain about the crossing.

"I have an issue with the [crossing gate] pole coming down and it not being delayed long enough -- not giving people enough time," Sexton said. "When that gate comes down I'd say you have 20 seconds until the train comes flying by."

Before the driver of a Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle found herself in the path of a Metro-North train traveling within the 60-mph speed limit Tuesday night, she likely had ample warning, grade crossing experts said. At that speed, it can take as much as a mile for a train to come to a complete stop, according to the LIRR.

FRA guidelines require railroads to begin lowering safety gates and activating other warning systems at least 20 seconds before a train passes, and most major railroads give significantly more notice, said Grady Cothen, a Washington, D.C.-area safety consultant who worked for the FRA more than 30 years.

"It's been very effective where it's been deployed in reducing the number of collisions between trains and motor vehicles," said Cothen, who recalled annual crossing death tolls as high as 1,400 in the 1970s before modern crossing gates were widely adopted.

If a gate did come down on top of a car, it would automatically rise upon making contact, then lower again after the car was clear, Cothen said.

Crossing gates, typically made of light material including wood or plastic, are also designed to break away to allow a driver to escape a crossing, he said.

A safety gate hit the rear of the Mercedes-Benz just before the train struck it Tuesday, federal officials said, and the electrified third rail pierced the train, sparking a fire. Five rail passengers and the motorist died.

National Transportation and Safety Board officials said they are evaluating the Commerce Street gates to determine if the crossing's design complied with federal requirements.

Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, said at a news conference in Valhalla Wednesday the agency has sent the crossing gate recorders to Washington, where their data will be downloaded. The agency is also examining signals at the crossing and the rail cars' crash-worthiness, he said.

Encapsulated in stainless steel and weighing more than 125,000 pounds, the M-7 rail car involved in the crash typically fares well in crossing strikes.

But what made Tuesday's crash the deadliest in Metro-North's history was the dislodging of a third rail that "snapped up" and pierced the front train car, igniting a "fierce fire," according to Sen. Charles Schumer.

"When a train hits a car . . . usually the train passengers aren't hurt," said Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Sumwalt said an NTSB specialist is determining whether the third rail was properly aligned and if power were interrupted as the rail began to break apart, as it was designed to do.

Christopher Natale, representing LIRR employees who work with and around third rails, said although Metro-North's third rails can differ from those at the LIRR, they are typically difficult to dislodge from the plastic insulator on which they rest.

With Candice Rudd and The AP

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the driver’s condition in the 1984 accident at the Commerce Street crossing.

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