Second Penn Station Train Derailment Shows Need for Track Safety Review

While there were no serious injuries reported, a Penn Station train derailment on Monday, April 3, 2017—the second Amtrak train accident causing injuries in two weeks—stunned over 1,000 passengers and has transit officials and politicians pointing the finger at Amtrak to step up the safety of their tracks. The two derailments are not the first commuter train accidents this year, and without a train track safety overhaul, may not be the last.

Minor Injuries Sustained in Amtrak Train Crash

The Monday morning derailment occurred at about 9:00 a.m., as train 3926 pulled into the Amtrak-owned and operated a station on Track Nine. The train, which had 1,200 people on board and had departed from Trenton, New Jersey, was moving slowly when the three middle cars derailed.

The impact was enough to break a wheel off one of the 10 train cars and was severe enough that some standing passengers fell to the ground, while some seated passengers were thrown into the seats in front of them. Fortunately, no serious injuries were sustained, though five people suffered minor injuries.

What followed was a confusing and lengthy evacuation of the train, exacerbated by the fact that the derailment had adjusted the alignment of the doors, preventing some passengers from being able to leave through the train to a safe exit.

“The biggest part of the issue was that the trains derailed in a way that it pinched the cars so that the doors to the cars did not line up. So we had to take people from the last four cars, which took a little bit of time, down onto the tracks,” FDNY Chief Roger Sakowich said.

“After we removed power to make sure the scene was safe, we walked them along the roadbed back up into a car that was close to the station and removed them that way.”

Removing one of the injured passengers was even more complicated, however, and firefighters had to attach a locomotive and move the train to another track to access the passenger.

Ultimately, it took about two hours to evacuate the train and secure the accident scene, and a total of approximately 600 people had to walk along the tracks to safety.

Penn Station Train Derailment Second in Two Weeks

Monday’s derailment was nearly a repeat occurrence at Penn Station where only two weeks earlier, on Friday, March 24, 2017, an Amtrak Acela train hit a New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit) train.

Acela Express Train 2151, which originated in Boston and was bound for Washington, D.C., was departing Penn Station when it had what Amtrak says was a “minor derailment while moving at a slow speed.” The derailment was enough to cause the Acela train to sideswipe the NJ Transit train, which was pulling into the station on an adjoining lane from Montclair, New Jersey. As with the more recent Penn Station train derailment, no major injuries were reported, but minor injuries were sustained.

Though Amtrak deemed the March 24 derailment to be minor, passenger photos show metal ripped from the outside of the train, and some passengers described incidents that could easily have led to more serious injuries.

Jordan Geary, who was on his way into the city from Montclair, told CBS New York about his own close call.

“It was pretty freaky,” Geary said. “I was looking at my phone and I felt a giant explosion next to my head, and my window caved in. Thankfully it didn’t hit my head.”

Geary also said that other windows were popped out, doors were thrown ajar, and metal was ripped off the train car he was riding in.

Lengthy Train Track Repair Time Leads to Complaints

Effects from the second Penn Station train derailment would reverberate throughout the week, with full service not returning until the evening of Friday, April 7, 2017, despite crews working 24 hours a day to fix the eight tracks damaged during Monday’s derailment.

Commuters were not the only ones expressing frustration about the delays and the time it took Amtrak to fix the issues. Both the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and NJ Transit took their anger with Amtrak public.

The MTA sent a letter to Charles Moorman, the CEO of Amtrak, outlining a “series of unacceptable infrastructure failures” that had affected Long Island Railroad and NJ Transit service. In the letter, the MTA stated “the current state of affairs is simply unacceptable.” The letter also said “rippling delays are lasting longer and longer,” that Amtrak is “not aggressively maintaining its tracks, switches and related equipment” and that repairs “have not happened as swiftly as needed.”

NJ Transit’s executive director, Steven Santoro, put things more bluntly.

“Amtrak needs to step up to the plate,” Santoro said. “They need to take the state of good repair of the Northeast Corridor seriously. It is Amtrak’s responsibility.” Santoro went on to emphasize the effect the issues have had on NJ Transit customers.

“Having two derailments in just over a week is unacceptable, and our customers are bearing the brunt,” Santoro stated. “We have and will continue to press Amtrak on the need for corrective actions now.”

Amtrak Was Aware of Issues with Track Prior to Pennsylvania Derailment

For its part, Amtrak is admitting it is to blame for both the first and second Penn Station train derailment. Amtrak also said that it was were aware there was an issue on the tracks in the area where Monday morning’s derailment occurred but had not realized how critical the problem was.

On April 6, 2017, Moorman officially took responsibility for the derailments.

“Based on our recent investigations, we can confirm that problems with our tracks in Penn Station were a cause of both recent derailments,” Moorman said.

The more recent Penn Station train derailment was caused by weakened wooden ties under the tracks, while the previous derailment was caused by mismatched pieces of rail that connected at a curve. Moorman said they knew the wooden ties need to be replaced and that they had planned on addressing it this year. Now, Moorman said, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FAA) will begin an inspection of the entire track infrastructure at Penn Station.

NY and NJ Governors Call for Independent Train Safety Review

Not content with the inspection promised by Moorman and the FAA, New Jersey governor Chris Christie and New York governor Andrew Cuomo came together seeking an independent review of the safety of the track at Penn Station.

On April 10, 2017, the two governors sent a letter to Moorman and the executive director of the FAA. In the letter, they state that neither has been invited to “participate in the assessment and in the development of the needed response” and that they “are requesting independent verification of track safety at Penn Station.”

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