Washington -- A day-long hearing Wednesday by federal investigators on the collision of two Metro-North commuter trains in May delved into possible weaknesses in both track inspection procedures and in new rail cars that are considered among the most advanced in train technology.
The May 17 crash near Bridgeport injured dozens of passengers and cost upward of $18.5 million in damages.
National Transportation Safety Board’s commissioners and investigators questioned whether the M-8 rail cars built by Kawasaki could have been designed and built to better withstand the collision that occurred when a speeding eastbound train from New York City derailed and a westbound train from New Haven sideswiped it.
More than 405 rail cars were bought for the New Haven line in 2010 at a cost of $1.2 billion and were jointly paid for by Connecticut and New York. Connecticut’s share was $800 million.
NTSB investigators asked whether the rail cars, which were fortified in front to withstand a head-on collision, needed modifications.
"I believed (the cars) behaved extremely well” in the crash, said Metro-North executive Dwight Sowden.
David C. Tyrell, senior engineer at the U.S. of the Department of Transportation, Volpe Center, said the M-8 car that was sideswiped “collapsed gracefully.”
But NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman questioned whether M-8 cars needed to be strengthened.
She called up a photo of the wrecked Metro-North car and pointed out the almost total destruction of a rear corner post that was designed to absorb the force of the crash.
“Do you believe that was a structure that collapsed gracefully?” Hersman asked. Tyrell conceded the corner post was too weak to absorb the “energy” of the crash.
Gene Colonese, head of the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s rail division, said he will reserve judgment on the performance of the M-8 cars until the NTSB issues a final report on the derailment and collision, which could take six months or more.
“I think right now we’re still waiting,” he said.
Hersman said after the hearing that there’s not enough information yet to make a decision on the rail cars. "We still have a lot of work to do to determine whether they performed as designed," she said.
Kawasaki has delivered about 300 of the 405 M-8 cars Metro-North has ordered.
Yoichiro Araki, representing Kawasaki, said Metro-North has already asked for more than 450 modifications of the cars, a number he said was not excessive.
While the NTSB is looking for everything that could have contributed to the accident, broken joint bars that held two pieces of track together were the immediate cause of the collision because they caused the eastbound train to derail.
Six weeks before, the Metro-North inspectors discovered the joint bars were cracked, a condition that can occur when there is inadequate ballast under the tracks.
The bars were replaced. But inspectors once again found them in disrepair just two days before the accident.
A report was made that there was a “pumping condition," on the track at the site of the accident and inadequate ballast.
Robert Puciloski, Metro-North’s chief engineer, said he was surprised the report did not include measurements of the track’s movement. Based on the report, Metro-North gave the repair of the joint bars low priority. It also failed to issue an order for the trains, which were both traveling at 75 mph the day of the collision, to reduce speed on that portion of the track.
"They should be measuring and identifying what the condition is," Puciloski said. "I can't explain why they have not done that."
Puciloski also said the rail company was behind on its maintenance schedule and had lost many experienced welders to retirement. Inspectors told investigators they felt pressure from supervisors to complete inspections quickly and not impede the flow of the heavily used commuter trains.
On Thursday, the NTSB will continue grilling Metro-North about an accident that happened the week after the crash. Metro-North foreman Robert Luden was struck and killed by a train while working on tracks that should have been shut down.
Metro-North is also facing problems on another front because of a power outage in September that disrupted travel for 12 days, affecting more than 100,000 commuters.