Tuesday’s Metro-North train crash north of New York City in Westchester County, which killed six, was a horror. But the apparent cause of the crash also shows how much progress New York has already made in preventing such deaths. Riding the rails—and even driving a car over the rails—has gotten so safe over recent decades that it’s getting hard to make such travel any safer. The dangers that remain are harder to predict and therefore less preventable.
Early reports suggest that the crash occurred after Ellen Brody, a 49-year-old mother of three, drove her SUV past an open rail-crossing gate and stopped just short of the tracks as the gate closed on the back of her car. Witnesses say Brody got out of the truck, “touched” the gate for some reason, got back in, paused, perhaps to buckle her seatbelt, and drove forward just as a Metro-North train, originating from Grand Central Terminal, barreled up the Harlem Line toward her. Despite the engineer’s braking, the train hit Brody’s vehicle at a high, though lawful, speed. After impact, the track’s third rail split into several 80-foot pieces, which pierced Brody’s truck and the front carriages of the train. Brody died, as did five commuters, whose accomplishments ranged from art mastery to chemistry expertise. It’s not clear if the fire that erupted, or blunt impact, or something else, caused their deaths. A dozen other riders were injured, one critically and one seriously.
The crash continues what has been a brutal two-year stretch for Metro-North. Fourteen months ago, four passengers died in a derailment on the railroad’s Hudson Line. Also in 2013, two trains derailed, with one crash critically injuring five riders. Metro-North trains also struck and killed two railroad workers. These earlier deaths and injuries were preventable. In each case, Metro-North failed to supervise or train workers, or to maintain equipment, or some combination of the two.
We’ve come a long way from the gruesome early years of rail travel. You don’t have to go back to the early twentieth century—when a 1902 crash of one of the privately run railroads that preceded Metro-North killed 15, and another crash five years later killed 20—to grasp our more recent triumphs. Even past mid-century, before the railroads were state-owned, though train mishaps weren’t exactly common, they weren’t rare, either. Two passengers died in a 1976 crash on a New York commuter line. (Until 2013, they were the last two travelers to die on what became part of Metro-North.) A Mount Vernon crash killed a rider in 1973. A Grand Central derailment killed a commuter in 1971. One passenger and three workers died in 1969. Similar crashes occurred on the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), which also saw two big 1950 wrecks—one on the day before Thanksgiving—that killed 110.
From the crashes and efforts to prevent future collisions and derailments, Metro-North, the LIRR, and their predecessors devised modern signaling, stopping, and track maintenance. They also learned how better to supervise workers. And in places where roads and tracks intersect—known as grade crossings—better lights, signs, and gates have saved lives. In 1988, for example, the MTA installed a gate at a crossing in Norwalk, Connecticut, where “more than a dozen people” had died over the years, according to a report in the New York Times. No one has died there since. Between 1983 and 1993, 11 people—all inside cars or trucks, not trains—died while crossing one of Metro-North’s 126 grade crossings. The following decade, two died; two more died in the decade leading up to 2014.
The lessons from this week’s tragedy are not obvious. It’s impossible to design a normally functioning passenger-rail car that can withstand being pierced by a rail. Perhaps the federal investigation into the crash will teach engineers something new about crashworthiness or rail design. Unless the track was defective, though, it’s hard to point to something that should have been done beforehand. The state could eliminate grade crossings, but that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, at least. Perhaps that’s an investment that would make sense over time, but New York doesn’t have that kind of money lying around right now. Taking money away from the rest of the transit system to separate grade crossings could result in more death or injury if it means delaying maintenance on rail tracks— factors that contributed to two of the 2013 derailments.
We can, of course, focus on the human element, doing more to keep people off the tracks. Much of the science of road and car design—traffic lights, speed limits, shoulders, seatbelts, airbags—involves saving people from themselves and others, and not just at rail crossings. Road deaths nationwide have fallen by 32 percent over the last 20 years, when adjusted for population growth. That’s more than 10,000 lives saved every year. But no failsafe exists, in the end, against unfortunate individual decisions. In a 2004 audit of 21 commuter-rail crossings, New York found 294 people in just 42 hours “trying to get through the barriers inappropriately and dangerously.” They were lucky; they survived. But the strides we’ve made mean that fewer people need to get lucky anymore.