NTSB: SUV Driver at Fault in 2015 Rail Crash

The board has recommended that local officials assess the safety of at-grade crossings, such as the Commerce Street crossing, and that commuter railroads that use third-rail power systems at or near grade crossings should assess their safety.

The National Transportation Safety Board has concluded that an SUV driver was at fault for a 2015 collision between her vehicle and a Metro-North commuter train at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y. The SUV driver and five passengers on the train died in the Feb. 3, 2015, accident; the rail passengers were killed when 343 feet of the third rail that powers the train penetrated the floor of the first train car and struck passengers.

NTSB said its investigation found the driver of the SUV moved her vehicle into the path of Metro-North commuter train 659. "Investigators found traffic at the Commerce Street grade crossing was congested when the driver entered the boundary of the grade crossing and stopped. The grade crossing warning system activated properly and a gate came down, striking the rear of her Mercedes-Benz ML350. Witnesses said the driver exited the vehicle and examined where the gate hit her SUV. She then got back into the driver's seat and moved onto the railroad tracks and into the path of the oncoming train," the agency reported. "The train hit the vehicle at 51 m.p.h., pushing the SUV 665 feet down the track, while detaching the third rail. The introduction of sparks, flaming debris and fuel into the lead railcar started a fire."

The board has recommended that local officials assess the safety of at-grade crossings, such as the Commerce Street crossing, and that commuter railroads that use third-rail power systems at or near grade crossings should assess their safety.

"Sadly, all of the NTSB's work in railroad and highway safety to date did not prevent this tragic accident,"’ said NTSB Acting Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. "But the recommendations we issued today could help to avoid future tragedies. When people see railroad tracks, even at grade crossings, they need to think train and maintain – or improve – their situational awareness. We recommended risk assessments by companies and agencies and corrective actions as warranted by the assessment results. Any railroad passenger has the right to expect that everything possible is being done to assure their safety."

The investigation found that Metro-North's third rail system "was not constructed to fail in a controlled manner or break away when subjected to overloaded conditions such as those involved in this accident. Also, the use of Metro-North’s current third rail system may increase the severity of railcar damage and serious injuries at grade crossing accidents," according to the board's news release.

It said the investigation ruled out the use of personal electronic devices or drugs and alcohol by either the SUV driver or the train engineer, and traffic signals, the performance of the train engineer, and weather and track conditions were ruled out as issues in this crash.

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