Metro-North crash: Injured conductors, engineers eye faulty track repair, train cars for cause

Emergency workers arrive at the scene of a

Emergency workers arrive at the scene of a Metro-North train crash in Fairfield, Conn. (May 17, 2013) (Credit: AP / The Connecticut Post, Christian Abraham)

Conductors and engineers injured in Friday's Metro-North derailment are preparing a legal battle against the railroad, arguing that faulty track repair and the state-of-the-art $2 million cars that collided could have caused the crash, according to a lawyer who represents them.

Attorney George Cahill said he's been retained by seven Metro-North workers to pursue federal lawsuits to recover damages for injuries suffered when a New Haven-bound commuter train went off the tracks near Bridgeport, Conn., sideswiping an oncoming train shortly after 6 p.m. and injuring 72 people. For some of his clients, Cahill has already filed federal notices of claim, often a starting point for lawsuits.

"We have questions," said Cahill, who has offices in Manhattan and New Haven and who has won past multimillion-dollar suits against Metro-North. "We're still investigating what happened."


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Cahill said he and his associates have spent the past few days talking to injured workers and others to try to determine what led to the derailment. Their interviews led to a couple of theories on why the accident occurred.

Metro-North declined to comment, citing the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board probe.

EYEING LOOSE STEEL BARS

Recent track repair in the area may have affected the stability of the rails, Cahill said. In particular, a joint bar -- two steel bars fastened together by bolts -- may have come loose along a section of track where the accident occurred, according to Cahill.

The loose joint bar is speculation that railroad sources have told Newsday they also believe is the most likely scenario.

Unlike other areas throughout the Metro-North system that use ribbon rail -- in which quarter-mile sections of the track are welded together to hold the rail line in place -- the corridor where the accident occurred relies on more antiquated infrastructure, union officials and railroad workers said.

Investigators with the NTSB have removed the section of track where the crash occurred and have taken it to Washington for forensic analysis.

It is not clear yet whether the track was damaged before or after the crash.

"We're still in the very early stages," said NTSB spokesman Terry Williams. "We're not ruling anything out."

Chris Silvera, a union official who represents track workers, has told Newsday that the section of track where the accident occurred was inspected as recently as Wednesday by two workers who saw nothing to indicate that disaster was looming.

"It is not fair to speculate on anything at this point," Silvera said. "The NTSB will do their review."

QUESTIONS ABOUT NEW RAIL CARS

Cahill also said his investigators are trying to determine whether Metro-North's new rail cars may have contributed to the accident.

Since 2009, Metro-North has added some 200 M-8 rail cars designed by Kawasaki Rail Car to the New Haven Line. The railroad has plans to bring the rest of the fleet -- nearly 200 more M-8s -- into the system in the coming years.

The wider cars with high-backed chairs and contoured seats have been praised by riders for their comfort.

However, Cahill said, workers have told him that the wheels on the cars may not have been installed properly, causing a less-than-perfect fit with the rail lines.

"We have questions about the wheel sets," Cahill said. "The wheel sets on the M-8s are not put on properly. We think they're too tight. The wheel sets will crop up on the rail."

Cahill would not offer his clients for comment.

METRO-NORTH WORKERS STILL 'SHAKEN'

Engineers and conductors were battered and bleeding after being tossed around the interior of the twisted train cars before aiding with the evacuation of some 500 passengers, a top union official said Tuesday.

"There's a lot of post-traumatic stress," said Tony Bottalico, the general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, which represents conductors and engineers. "They're very shaken."

He credited the quick-thinking actions of an engineer in the oncoming train for preventing more injuries and even death.

Bottalico said both trains were going around 70 mph when the engineer in the Manhattan-bound train noticed smoke and dust from the derailment ahead and immediately knocked down his speed.

"If he was going full speed, forget about it," Bottalico said.

Metro-North employees worked around the clock through the weekend to rebuild damaged track and restore electrical service in time for the resumption of regular service between New Haven and Grand Central Terminal Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday afternoon, the first Metro-North train to carry passengers through a section of track between Stamford and Bridgeport that had been shut down for nearly four days glided through the area at a slower-than-usual 30 mph pace. Limited service between Grand Central and New Haven was in place for the evening rush.

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