On Sunday, Dec. 1, a Metro-North train from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central Terminal derailed in the Bronx. Many members of the Vassar community had trouble returning to campus after Thanksgiving break. Four people on board were killed while 63 others were injured. This is the first Metro-North accident with passenger fatalities in the rail’s 30-year history (The New York Times, “Focus Turns to Investigation in Fatal Bronx Train Crash.” 12.1.13).
The train was moving too fast to safely perform a turn; preliminary reports show that the train was going around 82 mph when it should have slowed to 30 mph to round the curve. National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said at a news conference, “This is raw data off the event recorders, so it tells us what happened. It doesn’t tell us why it happened” (CNN, “‘Extreme speed’ eyed in fatal Bronx crash,” 12.3.13).
According to a Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) official, the train operator reported that he had to perform an emergency braking maneuver called “dumping” the brakes. Dumping the brakes is seen as a last resort effort, typically utilized to stop a train collision. The maneuver, however, was done too late to prevent the derailment (The New York Times).
An investigation has been opened to determine the cause of the accident. Weener said at the conference that authorities would be looking into the engineer, William Rockefeller Jr., as well as his recent work at Metro-North and his mobile phone records (CNN). Rockefeller has been a Metro-North employee for about twenty years (The Wall Street Journal, “New York Derailment Kills 4,” 12.2.13).
“We’re looking more towards the operation of the vehicle and the speed of the train, and that can either be an equipment failure or it can be an operator error,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at a news conference, “We don’t really know at this time” (The Wall Street Journal).
“The curve has been here for many, many years, right, and trains take the curve every day, 365 days a year,” Cuomo added, explaining how this accident is a unique incident. “We’ve always had this configuration. We didn’t have accidents. So there has to be another factor,” he said (CNN).
As a result of the accident, Metro-North suspended service between Tarrytown and Grand Central Terminal, while Amtrak suspended service between Albany and Penn Station. Those who needed to get to Poughkeepsie from Grand Central had to take the Harlem Line to White Plains, then take a bus to Tarrytown. From there, passengers took the Hudson Line to Poughkeepsie.
President Catharine Hill sent a school-wide advisory email the day of the derailment. Because of some students’ reliance on Metro-North and Amtrak to return to campus, Hill stated, “Faculty should expect that some students will be late in returning tomorrow.”
“Luckily I was able to return before Monday, but I still had to endure hours of travel,” said Samantha Smith ’16, one student affected by the derailment.
“I arrived at Penn Station from Philadelphia and was scheduled to get on an 11:20 Amtrak train to Poughkeepsie. But once I got to Penn I saw that trains to Poughkeepsie were ‘delayed indefinitely.’ I had no idea how I was going to get back to Vassar,” she continued.
“I freaked out for maybe a half hour. I contacted friends who I knew were getting rides back to school, and eventually my roommate said she would drive me. I had to wait until 5:30 until her uncle was available so I got back to school a lot later than expected,” Smith said, “But once I knew I wasn’t going to be stuck at Penn forever, everything was fine.”
“I was planning on taking Metro-North back sometime Sunday afternoon,” said Smith’s roommate, Kristell Taylor ’16, “and then I saw what happened on the news. My uncle agreed to drive [Smith] and me back to Vassar, but since he works on Sundays we had to wait a bit.”
“My travel plans were changed by the derailment,” said Colette Fletcher-Hoppe ’15 in an emailed statement.
Fletcher-Hoppe explained, “Metro-North re-routed its Hudson Line customers onto a train from the Harlem Line, which stopped in White Plains. From there, we took a shuttle to Tarrytown, a station on the Hudson Line North of the derailment. From Tarrytown, we had a forty-minute wait for another train, which took us back North to Poughkeepsie.”
Students agreed, however, that being inconvenienced was a minor consequence of the derailment.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited injured passengers at Montefiore Medical Center and at St. Barnabas Hospital and spoke on their behalf, remarking on the tragedy of the event. He said, “The tragic thing is four people who aren’t going to come home. I think at this point most, if not all, of those that were critical look like they will be okay, eventually” (The New York Times).
“The detour was two hours out of my way, and after waking up at 7:00 a.m. and spending all day traveling, I was not happy to get back to campus late at night,” Fletcher-Hoppe said.
She continued, “However, I’m sure the situation was much worse for Metro-North and its employees, who had to manage customer complaints and the post-Thanksgiving travel rush, not to mention the victims of the crash and their families.”
“Reading about the fatalities really put things into perspective,” Smith said. “Yeah, I couldn’t get back to school as early as I wanted to, but if that’s my biggest problem coming out of this then I shouldn’t be complaining.”
Fletcher-Hoppe agreed, saying, “For me, this was a hassle, but for some it meant a hospital visit, and for others, a funeral to attend. It’s really upsetting to think of the families who lost their loved ones right after Thanksgiving, during Hanukkah, and just before the Christmas holiday season.”