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Track circuit failure caused LIRR train derailment in Speonk, report states

First responders at a Long Island Rail Road

First responders at a Long Island Rail Road derailment in Speonk on May 25. Credit: John Roca

A Long Island Rail Road track circuit failure caused two trains to run into each other and derail in Speonk over the Memorial Day weekend, but some LIRR workers made matters worse by not communicating with one another about the potential for such an accident, federal investigators have concluded.

The report from the Federal Railroad Administration also revealed an LIRR assistant signalman who was supposed to have tested the track circuit that later failed is now involved in a criminal investigation into the May 25 incident.

A representative for the LIRR signalmen union decline to comment. 

More than 30 passengers on the eastbound train had to be evacuated after the derailment. There were no injuries, but the damage caused the LIRR to suspend service to the South Fork during the holiday weekend — one of the busiest for Hamptons travel.

The report explains that a westbound train, carrying no passengers, had pulled over into a side track just east of Speonk to allow the eastbound Montauk train to pass. According to the report, crew members aboard the 14-car westbound train were “aware that they should have been too long to fit into the siding,” but a signal indicated to a “block operator” monitoring the trains’ movement from Babylon that the train had cleared the main track.

“There were no further radio instructions to either crew, to inform them of anything out of the ordinary,” the report said.

The engineer of the eastbound train, having received the signal to proceed, was five car-lengths from impact when he noticed the rear car of the pulled-over train — a diesel locomotive — “fouling” the tracks ahead of him. He applied the emergency brakes, but the train struck the left side of the other’s engine. “The impact punctured and opened the fuel tank of Eng. 511 on the right side, causing a fuel spill and several small fires,” according to the report.

The FRA deemed the accident was caused by a “false proceed” signal that might have stemmed from a broken bond in a rail joint. The FRA said in the report that an LIRR signal maintainer and assistant signalman were supposed to have inspected the track circuit for problems in April, but investigators could not confirm all tests had been properly performed because "the FRA has not been allowed to interview the Assistant Signalman due to an ongoing criminal investigation into the incident."

In a statement, MTA chief safety officer Patrick Warren said, “The May 25 Speonk derailment resulted from a signal system malfunction caused by a defective signal system component, and the matter is still under investigation.”  

Upon the request of MTA chairman Patrick Foye, MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny in June opened her own investigation into the crash. Her office declined to comment.

Although the FRA report does not blame any LIRR employee for the accident — and commended the conductor of the eastbound train for his “exemplary” actions following the crash — it did conclude that the conductor of the westbound train knew the rear end of his train might have been in the way of the oncoming train, and that the block operator “contributed to the severity” of the accident by “relying solely on the signal system” and not warning the eastbound train of the potential for an accident with a 14-car train pulled into a 13-car side track.

The block operator and a dispatcher “both noticed the longer train fit into a siding that should not have been able to accommodate it, yet took no action to verify what was occurring in the field,” the report said. “If a verbal safety briefing or warning had been conveyed, this incident might have been avoided.”

Nicholas Peluso, a representative of the Transpotation Communication Union, which represents the block operator and dispatcher, said they were "cleared of any wrongdoing by the Long Island Rail Road."

"They're highly trained and skilled employees," Peluso said. "They did everything in their capabilities to do the right thing."

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