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NTSB: Probes of LIRR, NJ Transit crashes may be combined

First responders inspect the scene of the Long

First responders inspect the scene of the Long Island Railroad train derailment at the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. Credit: Theodore Parisienne

The NTSB is considering combining the findings of its investigations into the separate crashes of an LIRR and NJ Transit commuter train into a single report that will address the need to prevent slow-speed train accidents at railroad terminals, officials said Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed it was looking at streamlining the two probes Tuesday, as MTA officials urged the Long Island Rail Road to do more to reduce the potential for accidents at train terminals — where federally mandated positive train control technology is not required.

On Jan. 4, a morning rush-hour train traveling 10 mph or more slammed into a bumping post at the end of the tracks at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, injuring more than 100 passengers — many of whom were standing and violently thrown when the train came to a sudden stop. NTSB investigators have said the train was going at least 10 miles per hour — or twice the speed limit for that area.

The accident was similar to one that occurred on Sept. 29, when a NJ Transit train crashed at the end of the tracks at Hoboken Terminal — injuring about 100 passengers and killing a woman standing at the station.

Updating members of the MTA Board’s LIRR Committee at a Tuesday meeting in Manhattan, LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski said the NTSB notified the LIRR that it is combining its investigations into the two accidents.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said the independent federal agency is “considering” combining the two probes “because both involved . . . issue areas that we want to explore,” including bumping posts, train accidents inside terminals and the applicability of positive train control crash prevention technology.

“A final decision, however, has not been made,” Knudson said. “It is pending further internal review.”

Positive train control, or PTC, allows equipment in trains and along tracks to communicate with each other and slow down or stop a train before an accident occurs. Although the federal government requires all railroads to have PTC in place by the end of 2018, railroads are not required to have the technology in train terminals, where trains travel at slow speeds.

Despite the exemption, some MTA board members on Tuesday urged the LIRR to explore modifying its positive train control plan to include terminals and other slow-speed areas, including Penn and Jamaica stations. As another option, the board members suggested exploring, or even developing, technology separate from PTC that could prevent terminal accidents.

“My concern is that PTC will not be in those places and we could have a 10-mile-per-hour collision,” said MTA board member Ira Greenberg, who noted that Jamaica and Penn stations would also be exempt from the requirement. “It can happen. And we have trains full of people who are usually standing in those stations.”

Nowakowski said that while the LIRR “can, should and will” look at making PTC operable within terminals, it is not a top priority.

“Our focus and our priority is meeting the deadline,” Nowakowski said, referring to Congress’ Dec. 31, 2018, deadline to have PTC fully in place at the risk of heavy fines. “To be honest with you, we’re not trying to redesign the system at this point in time, because we need to put all our resources to getting the deadline met.”

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, PTC is only required along “main line” tracks. That does not include passenger terminals, where railroads can request exemptions because PTC “may not perform well . . . where there is significant congestion, tracks and switches, overlapping train movements, and other complex operations.‎” However, railroads are still required to control train speeds in terminals.

Joseph Giulietti, president of the LIRR’s sister MTA commuter railroad, Metro-North, said the two railroads are looking at various options to reduce terminal crashes, including using a different type of bumping post at the end of the tracks at terminals and modifying trains’ existing automatic speed control systems — which predate PTC — to automatically slow trains to less than 10 mph at terminals.

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