Early in 2016, roughly a year after a Metro-North train struck a Mercedes SUV and derailed, killing the driver and five passengers, the MTA plans to assess the hundreds of crossings where rail meets road.
“Whenever you have an incident of that nature, that visibility and that impact on lives, the loss of life, you do an awful lot of inner-looking,” said MTA chairman Tom Prendergast, at the authority’s monthly board meeting. “And so, grade crossings are a high priority for us.”
There are 437 places in the New York metropolitan area where cars cross Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road tracks. The MTA, via a contractor, already is analyzing 25 of them.
“The initial sampling showed that surveying them closely was helpful, so we’ll do all of them,”
It was on Feb. 3, at one such crossing in Valhalla in Westchester County, that a commuter train crashed into a car on the tracks. In addition to the six deaths, more than dozen people were injured, some gravely.
The National Transportation Safety Board took over the investigation.
On Wednesday, the board released more than 1,100 documents related to the ongoing investigation. The board’s final analysis of the accident hasn’t been released yet.
But the docket contained details about the horror on the train in those minutes after it struck the car.
One unnamed passenger in the front car was playing solitaire on his or her phone when the rumbling began, and the third rail penetrated the right side of the car, hitting another rider on the forehead and killing him instantly.
Sparks flew as the third rail tore through the train.
As the solitaire player made for the exit, he or she saw a body cut in half in the aisle.
“A man adjacent to that rail jumped up and his clothing immediately burst into flames,” William Marshall, a passenger, told the investigators via email.
He threw his coat to the floor and tried stamp out the flames.
Passengers trying to escape to the second car discovered the door was jammed. Others tried to push open the windows but struggled to do so.
Eventually two riders managed to open the right side window. They escaped the train and helped others climb out.
As they stood in the snow outside of the carriage, passengers described the SUV engulfed in flames. Fearing an explosion as the train began to catch fire, some of the approximately 20 passengers in the first car began to wander towards the neighboring cemetery.
A group of riders carried a man who’d lost his left leg below the knee.
The Valhalla accident was the deadliest in Metro-North’s history, and one of a series of deadly incidents, including a derailment in Spuyten Duyvil, that has come to mar the once-sterling reputation of the MTA railroad.
The MTA has since intensified its focus on safety.