A dozen pieces of the electrified third rail pierced and lodged in the front car of a Metro-North commuter train as it slowed following the Feb. 3 collision with an SUV, federal investigators said in a new report Monday that detailed the moments before and after the fatal crash.
The preliminary accident report from the National Transportation Safety Board also confirmed earlier conclusions that the train had slowed before the crash and that the SUV was thrust hundreds of feet along the track in the Westchester County community of Valhalla. It further noted the crossing gates and lights were operating, and that motorist Ellen Brody was stuck between the gates before their activation.
According to the report, the train's data recorder found that the engineer, Steven Smalls Jr., sounded his horn and applied the train's emergency brakes about 300 feet before the collision -- slowing the train from 58 mph to 49 mph in four seconds before hitting Brody's SUV. The crossing speed limit was 60 mph.
"The train and the SUV continued northbound resulting in the damage of the electrified third rail on the west side of the track," the report said. The mass of burning metal traveled 650 feet along the track before coming to a stop.
"The third rail detached, pierced the SUV, and then entered the [first] railcar in two locations from the underside at the aft end of the left side passenger doorway," the report said. "Twelve sections of the third rail, each 39 feet long, were found inside the first passenger railcar."
Five passengers in the train's first car were killed. The report said the NTSB will conduct metallurgical tests of some sections of the third rail and test pieces of the train car "for compliance with fire protection standards."
The report does not conclude what caused the accident. It noted the weather at the time was 20 degrees with light winds, clear skies "and good visibility." It also said Metro-North estimated the damage to the train and track cost $3.7 million.
In a statement, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on Metro-North and the Federal Railroad Administration to "closely and immediately" study the NTSB report "in search of any changes that can make rail crossings safer in the near term."
Schumer also said the report underscored that Smalls, the engineer, "was a true hero in the face of a horrible situation."
Metro-North, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the report. But at a meeting Monday morning, agency president Joseph Giulietti said Metro-North continues "working closely" with the NTSB and other federal, state and local authorities "to determine the exact cause of this tragedy."
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Monday also reported it is behind in installing federally mandated positive train control crash-prevention technology throughout Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road systems.
Although the MTA expedited the project after a December 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx killed four passengers, the agency said it still doesn't expect to have the $973 million system up and running until December 2018 -- three years after the December 2015 federal deadline.
While not speculating on what penalties the MTA could face for missing the deadline, MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast noted that most railroads in the country are also behind schedule. He said the LIRR and Metro-North -- the two busiest commuter railroads in the United States -- have "done everything in their power to get as much done as possible."