Blame game begins in Metro-North crash

Washington –- The National Transportation Safety Board is months away from a final determination on what caused the Metro-North crash earlier this month that injured dozens of commuters, some of them severely.

The NTSB is focusing on a section of the track at the derailment site that had been held together by joint bars — steel bars, also called fishplates, that are fastened with bolts to hold two sections of track together. An inspection by Metro-North employees of that section of track in April resulted in the replacement of a broken joint bar.

The question now is who, if anyone, is to blame for the derailment? Millions of dollars in lawsuits may hinge on the answer.

Elizabeth Sorensen, the passenger who was perhaps the most injured in the crash, has filed a lawsuit against Metro-North, blaming the railroad company of negligence.

Hers is the first legal action stemming from the crash, but it won’t be the last.

Other passengers and injured railroad workers have also retained lawyers.

Metro-North is under fire. But a spokesman said the company has been barred by the NTSB from commenting on anything to do with the crash.

Workers who repaired the track are also under scrutiny.  They belong to the Long Island-based Local 808  of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Chris Silvera, the secretary-treasurer of Local 808, said there were three workers involved, two who worked directly on the repair of the track and another who came over to assist.

“Work was done in what was considered acceptable practices,” he said.

But Silvera said those practices are likely to be altered after the NTSB completes its investigation. That could take six months or more.

“Corrections are written in blood all too often,” he said. “I’m sure there will be recommendations on how to do things better.”

George Cahill, an attorney in New Haven who represents some injured passengers and train workers, said he has evidence Metro-North is to blame.

Cahill said there’s a “history” of problems with the section of track in question, including the replacement of some of the 80-year-old track with newer, heavier rail that did not line up correctly.

Cahill said the joint bars that were replaced in April had been installed in February during the track replacement. He said the track should have been welded together instead.

But Cahill said the track workers are not to blame for anything that might have gone wrong.

“They did everything they were told to do,” he said.

Cahill also said workers often wanted to perform certain repairs on the tracks but were told by management they could not because only two of the four tracks in the area were in operation. The other two were closed to repair overhead electrical wires.

He said last week’s accidental death of a railroad employee near the construction of a new station in West Haven is also proof of “systemic problems” in Metro-North management.

The worker, 52-year-old Robert Luden, was working on a track that was supposed to be out of service for a construction project when he was hit by a train. The NTSB is also investigating that accident.

As for the May 17 derailment, Cahill said Metro-North should have replaced that section of track long ago, as it was after the crash. Metro-North also initiated an inspection of all joint bars in the area.

Cahill also said there may have been a problem with the new “M8” train cars built by Kawasaki for use on the Metro-North’s New Haven line. He said the wheel sets on the cars may have been “tight” or set too closely together, allowing them to more easily disengage from the track.

The NTSB should have the final word on what went wrong -– making it clearer who, if anyone, is to blame.

But in a release last week the agency has already seemed to rule out operator error or defects with the signal system.