The Long Island Rail Road accident Oct. 8 near New Hyde Park occurred after a work train derailed and was stuck in the path of an oncoming passenger train, the railroad’s president revealed Wednesday.
LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski, at a Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR Committee, offered new details in the accident, which injured 33 people and caused three days of service disruptions.
Nowakowski said the work train — a “very heavy” track stabilizer that vibrates to smooth out the track surface — had been performing work all day on the out-of-service north track near New Hyde Park, and was preparing to cross over to the south track to perform similar work after midnight, using a switch on the tracks.
To take advantage of the scheduled track outage, LIRR workers were simultaneously performing unrelated work to the signal system in the area. As a result, a movable frog point — another device that allows trains to cross over tracks — had been moved.
The open track switch caused the work train to errantly veer onto the south track as it moved east. But before the train operator could correct the train, and move it back onto the north track, the frog point, which was in the opposite direction of the switch, caused the wheels of the car to come off the rails.
“The work car derailed and it winds up on the ground,” Nowakowski said. “The work car, because it hadn’t traversed all the way over to the other track, was sitting at an angle, with the front of the car in a fouling position.”
The work train operator “leapt out and started running to the back to try and stop” an oncoming Huntington-bound train moving at 43 mph from hitting the prone piece of equipment, “but there was no time,” Nowakowski said.
The first car of the eastbound Huntington train struck the work train and “sent it in a counterclockwise direction.” The work train was then “sideswiped” by the second car of the passenger train, and struck by the third car, which suffered the most extensive damage.
“Obviously, we know what happened. This is not one of those derailments where you have to spend a lot of time figuring out what happened. But we do need to figure out why it happened, and how to prevent it from happening again,” said Nowakowski, adding that the Federal Railroad Administration is continuing its investigation into the accident.
An FRA spokesman declined to comment on Nowakowski’s version of the accident, but said investigators are still working to reconstruct the exact sequence of events and movements of the trains involved.
The heads of the two unions representing the workers involved in the accident, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, did not respond to requests for comment.
Nowakowski acknowledged that the same work train was involved in a prior derailment once before, but said that fact had nothing to do with the Oct. 8 accident.
At the same meeting Wednesday, Nowakowski said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board would meet in a private executive session Friday to discuss how it will move forward with its beleaguered freight rail partner, New York & Atlantic Railway, which recently exercised an option to extend by 10 years its existing agreement to operate on the LIRR’s tracks.
Soon after the renewal, the FRA released a report raising several concerns about the railway’s safety record stemming from a July 2015 accident in which a freight train struck a tractor trailer in Queens.
Echoing a statement by MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast on Monday, Nowakowski said, given the FRA report, the LIRR is “exploring” and “evaluating” its options. MTA officials have suggested those could include terminating the agreement with NYAR and putting the freight contract out to bid.