NTSB: Track trouble noticed before Metro-North derailment did $18 million in damage

Washington – An inspection of the track before the May 17 derailment and collision of two Metro-North commuter trains uncovered a damaged joint bar that caused the track to move at the point of derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed today.


In a preliminary report released Wednesday morning, the NTSB said the crash injured 76 people and did an estimated $18 million in damage. A total of 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor were all taken to area hospitals as a result of the accident.


Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the cost of the accident will be shared by the state of Connecticut, which owns the tracks, and Metro-North. Under an agreement, Connecticut pays 65 percent of the cost of maintaining and repairing the tracks and Metro-North pays 35 percent. But Anders  said how damage expenses will be shared hasn’t been determined yet.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a question of many discussions,” she said.


A spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation said he did not know how the costs would be shared. 


According to the NTSB, the maximum allowed speed on the four tracks in the area of the collision was 70 mph. Recorders on the trains indicate the eastbound train was traveling at that maximum speed when it derailed, the report said. The westbound train’s engineers applied the emergency break and slowed from 70 to 23 mph before it hit the eastbound train, which had derailed 20 seconds earlier.


The NTSB also said the track on the New Haven line is visually inspected three times a week with the use of a “hi-rail” vehicle — a specially equipped truck that rides over the rails — or on foot. The last inspection was performed on May 15 by hi-rail and the inspection found “an insulted rail joint with inadequate supporting ballast and indications of vertical movement of the track system” at what preliminary investigations have determined is the point of collision.


The NTSB did not indicate whether any repairs were done on the track after the May 15 inspection uncovered the problem. But the NTSB has said earlier that a damaged joint bar near the site of the collision was replaced after an April inspection.


Anders said the inspector of the track “did not deem it serious enough to issue a slow speed order or a recommendation that it be fixed immediately.”

She said ballast is small, jagged golf-ball sized stone that surrounds the ties that hold the rails and needs to be  tightly packed to prevent the ties and rails from moving.

“Maintaining ballast is part of routine track maintenance,” Anders said.

The  NTSB has said earlier that a damaged joint bar near the site of the collision was replaced after an April inspection.The joint bar and portions of the track have been sent to Washington for further testing.

Michael Ellis, 65, of Milford, put the Metropolitan Transit Authority on notice of his claim of injuries from the accident, his attorney Raymond Ganim said Wednesday.

Joel Faxon, whose New Haven  firm filed the first lawsuit in the crash on behalf of 65-year-old Mystic resident Elizabeth Sorensen, said Metro-North failed to make proper repairs to the track in April because two of the four tracks in the area were shut down to make repairs to overhead electrical wires.

“Metro-North decided they’d rather have expeditious train service that would risk injury to many thousands of people,” he said.

George Cahill, a New Haven-based  attorney representing injured train workers and a dozen passengers, said “it was [inadequate pressure from the ballast] that caused the joint bar to brake and the rails to come apart and caused the derailment.”

But in its preliminary report, the NTSB did not say what caused the derailment and crash. That determination will be made by the agency in six months or more.

Cahill also said problems at Metro-North stem from “a number of management positions that have remained vacant that (Metro North President Howard Permut) has not filled.”

“So I think there’s a tremendous leadership problem in Metro-North,” Cahill said.

Anders said there has been a rash of retirements at Metro-North, caused by the 30-year anniversary of the founding of the railroad in January.

“That’s the magic number for retirements,” she said.

Chris Silvera, secretary treasurer of Long Island-based Local 808  of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said a Connecticut –based worker represented by the local conducted the April and May inspections of the track.

He noted the NTSB has not concluded “what was the problem that caused the accident.”

He also said the inspector of the track in May “noted that the ballast needed to be tamped,” but may have decided that action could wait.

“A track can be in need of something but it’s like having the flu and having to go to the doctor,” Silvera said. “If I waited to go until tomorrow it isn’t going to kill me.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who inspected along with other public officials following the accident, said the NTSB “revelations raise more questions than answers– deeply disturbing questions concerning possible immediate and urgent safety issues that must be answered right away.

“People who rely on our rail systems every day deserve a comprehensive and complete report now,” he said. “The NTSB has said that it needs a year to complete its investigation. That delay is unacceptable. I urge the NTSB to give an expedited date when it will set forth what the safety problems were, how they can and will be addressed, and who should be held accountable.”