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Investigation Continues Into N.J. Commuter Train Crash


Beyond going way too fast, there is still no additional information as to why a New Jersey commuter train crashed into the Hoboken Terminal this morning. One person was killed, and more than a hundred others were injured, including Neal Lattner of Westwood, N.J. He told member station WNYC he was riding in the back of the second car.

NEAL LATTNER: I realized as we were going through the station it felt like it was going too fast. And I actually braced myself, sensing it was too fast. I wish I would have yelled to everybody to brace themselves, but I couldn't. And we just crashed, and the cars felt like they were crumpling into each other. And I've hurt my arm and my back.

SIEGEL: In a moment we'll hear from the mayor of Hoboken, N.J. But first NPR's David Schaper is in the studio to talk about the investigation. Good to see you, David.

SIEGEL: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: What do you know so far about what happened?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, the train was traveling at a high rate of speed, much faster than it should have been going. And it - as it entered the terminal - and it's still not clear if even the brakes were applied or when they were applied, if at all. So the train then hit this bumping post that's designed to keep it on the tracks and stop it if it doesn't break in time - hit that, jumped up into the air and onto the platform on the concourse.

And many of the most seriously hurt people were not on the train itself but in that terminal area and were hit by the train as it catapulted into them.

SIEGEL: David, how do investigators go about figuring out what went wrong in this case?

SCHAPER: They'll look through the wreckage. They'll examine the condition of the track. They'll look at the engine and all of the mechanical systems to see if there were any failures there. But really what they're going to look for - the most critical evidence will come from the data recorder, the so-called black box that's on the locomotive.

Bob Swint is a forensic engineer. He helps reconstruct and investigate railroad accidents, and he says the data recorder will be able to tell them exactly how fast the train was going at impact, whether it was still accelerating or it actually had started to slow down, when the brakes were applied, if they were applied at all. And Swint says the data recorder should be able to provide some information about just about every mechanical system every second the train is moving.

BOB SWINT: Coming into a rail station like this is a controlled maneuver that has to be done properly. These bumper stops are there to keep you from hitting at a certain speed. It slows you down. It dampens the impact.

SCHAPER: Swint says because the train's impact sent it up into the air like this and onto the concourse, that alone indicates it was just going way too fast. The big question is why, and was it an operator error or some sort of mechanical failure?

SIEGEL: Trains are one of the safest ways to travel, we should say, but we can recall some terrible accidents - the Amtrak train derailment outside Philadelphia about a year and a half ago. What's being done now to improve train safety?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, that Philadelphia Amtrak crash is one of those that the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration say could have been prevented by a high-tech system called positive train control.

This has been around and in development for a number of years, and it would actually stop the train and prevent a crash or derailment if the engineer is going too fast or fails to stop the train himself in time. Here's former NTSB Chairwoman Debbie Hersman.

DEBBIE HERSMAN: I think it's yet another wakeup call for the rail industry that has been slow to implement positive train control. We are going to continue to have fatal crashes with significant outcomes until we get positive train control put on these high-consequence lines.

SCHAPER: The railroads have until 2018 to install and implement the systems, but many commuter rail agencies because of the cost, because of the complexity are way behind schedule.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's David Schaper. David, thank you.

SCHAPER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.

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