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Associated Press
A backhoe moves a section of railroad track Monday near the site of a Sunday morning train derailment in the Bronx borough of New York.

Train was going 82 in 30 mph zone

Reason unclear in deadly Bronx derailment

– A commuter train that derailed over the weekend, killing four passengers, was hurtling at 82 mph as it entered a 30 mph curve, a federal investigator said Monday. But whether the wreck was the result of human error or mechanical trouble was unclear, he said.

Rail experts said the tragedy might have been prevented if Metro-North Railroad had installed automated crash-avoidance technology that safety authorities have been urging for decades.

The locomotive’s speed was extracted from the train’s two data recorders after the Sunday morning accident, which happened in the Bronx along a bend so sharp that the speed limit drops from 70 mph to 30 mph.

Asked why the train was going so fast, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said: “That’s the question we need to answer.”

Weener would not disclose what the engineer operating the train told investigators, and he said results of drug and alcohol tests were not yet available. Investigators are also examining the engineer’s cellphone, apparently to determine whether he was distracted.

“When I heard about the speed, I gulped,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Engineers may not use cellphones while on the train, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North.

The engineer, William Rockefeller, was injured and “is totally traumatized by everything that has happened,” said Anthony Bottalico, executive director of the rail employees union.

He said Rockefeller, 46, was cooperating fully with investigators.

“He’s a sincere human being with an impeccable record that I know of. He’s diligent and competent,” Bottalico said. Rockefeller has been an engineer for about 11 years and a Metro-North employee for about 20, he said.

Outside Rockefeller’s modest house in Germantown, N.Y., police told reporters that at the request of the family, anyone who trespassed would be arrested. Calls to the home went unanswered.

The NTSB’s Weener sketched a scenario that suggested that the train’s throttle was let up and the brakes were fully applied way too late to stave off disaster.

He said the throttle went to idle six seconds before the derailed train came to a complete stop – “very late in the game” for a train going that fast – and the brakes were fully engaged five seconds before the train stopped.

It takes about a quarter-mile to a half-mile to stop a train going 82 mph, Kevin Thompson, Federal Railroad Administration spokesman.

Asked whether the tragedy was the result of human error or faulty brakes, Weener said: “The answer is, at this point in time, we can’t tell.”

But he said investigators are not aware of any problems with the brakes during the nine stops the train made before the derailment. The wreck came two years before the federal government’s deadline for Metro-North and other railroads to install automatic-slowdown technology designed to prevent catastrophes caused by human error.

Metro-North’s parent agency and other railroads have pressed the government to extend Congress’ 2015 deadline a few years because of the cost and complexity of the Positive Train Control system, which uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or going the wrong way.

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