Although we tend to associate deadly accidents with cars, trucks, and other small passenger vehicles, recent events in Westchester County remind us of the horrific disasters that can occur when such vehicles collide with commercial trains. During the evening commute of February 3rd, a northbound Metro-North train collided with a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla, New York. The crash ruptured the SUV's gas tank, igniting the vehicle and one of the train cars. As a result, six people died and dozens more were injured.
According to news reports, there were about 700 passengers on board the Metro-North train, which departed from Grand Central Station in Manhattan just before 6 p.m. The crash occurred about 45 minutes later. The New York Times York Times reported that, as the train approached a railroad crossing in Valhalla, “the gates came down, catching a car between the tracks and the gate.” An eyewitness told the New New York Post Post the driver of the SUV did not attempt to back her vehicle off the track; instead, “she gets back in her car and starts driving forward over the tracks.”
The SUV driver failed to make it across, and by that point, the conductor of the Metro-North train could not stop the train. The subsequent crash “bulldozed the car and pushed it about 1,000 feet up the tracks,” according to the Post. The electrified third rail then came loose and impaled the SUV. Another section of the rail then broke into the train cars. Finally, the SUV's gas tank exploded.
Who Is to Blame?
The National Transportation Safety Board has taken charge of the crash site in Valhalla and will likely issue a final report within the next few months. While this was the most deadly crash in the history of Metro-North, it was not the railroad's only safety breakdown. Last March the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) reported to Congress on “four high-profile accidents” involving Metro-North trains in 2013 alone. This included a December 2013 derailment in Poughkeepsie that killed four people and injured 70 others.
The FRA concluded Metro-North “has emphasized on-time performance to the detriment of safe operations and adequate maintenance of its infrastructure.” The FRA blasted Metro-North's management for its “deficient safety culture” that continues to put passengers at risk. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged these criticisms in an interview with CBS News following the Valhalla accident, but added: “I think it’s too soon to say what’s to blame or who’s to blame” for what happened.
The governor is no doubt anticipating potential litigation against Metro-North from the families of the Valhalla victims. Unfortunately, such lawsuits are often necessary to hold negligent public transportation agencies accountable and spur genuine change in safety protocols and management practices. But, as the early accounts of this tragedy indicate, the driver of the SUV may have also been negligent, and her estate could also face lawsuits.
If you have been a victim in any type of transportation accident, it is important to seek independent legal advice from someone with experience in personal injury and negligence lawsuits. A qualified New York accident attorney can ensure your interests do not get lost in the process of investigating and addressing the underlying causes of an accident. Contact our office today if you would like to speak with an attorney right away.