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Could Anything Have Been Done to Prevent the Tragic Metro-North Valhalla Railroad-Crossing Accident? An Unusual Third-Rail and Planned Warning Lights That Weren’t Installed Are Being Considered

On the evening of Tuesday, February 3, 2015, a Metro North train collided with an SUV that was stopped on the tracks near Valhalla station. As a result of this tragic accident, the driver of the SUV and five passengers on the train were killed. There were also numerous injuries to other passengers.

While investigators haven’t answered many questions about the crash. Their initial findings are shedding some light on what could have played a role in causing this accident.

Initially it appears that the driver of the SUV was in traffic that was inching toward the crossing, and when the warning lights came on and the crossing gates came down, the driver’s car was within the gates. One of the gates hit the driver’s vehicle, who subsequently got out of her vehicle to check for damage. Seemingly unhurried, the driver got back in the car and proceeded further onto the tracks.

Data recorders show the Metro-North Railroad train’s engineer hit the emergency brakes and sounded the horn as the train approached the Valhalla crossing. The train was traveling 58 mph in a 60 mph zone. Flashing warning lights at the crossing illuminated 39 seconds before the crash, and the gates came down a few seconds later according to NTSB officials. That would leave about 30 seconds that the SUV was inside the gates. An investigation is still ongoing as to when the train’s engineer hit the emergency brakes.

It has also come to the attention of certain officials that there could be more at play than human error at the time of the accident. State transportation officials planned five years ago to install more flashing warning lights at the train crossing, but inexplicably never did so.

In addition to safety upgrades implemented at the Valhalla crossing, in 2009, it was intended to add a third set of lights on the curving road leading up to it, to give drivers a few more seconds’ notice of an approaching train. The approved budget of $128,000 was taken off the table last year.

Further, investigators had never seen a third-rail configuration resulting in such devastation. 400 feet of electrified third-rail snapped into 39-foot pieces and punched through the SUV and into the cabin of the commuter train. Now officials want to know whether the rail’s unusual design explains why the crash was so uncommonly deadly.

The pieces went through the first car of the train “like daggers going into the heart of that chamber,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Friday after getting a look at the blackened, mangled wreckage.

“This has never happened before, and this is a rare configuration of a third rail. Do those two add up to the explanation for this terrible, terrible tragedy? Very possibly,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said, calling the design “a real concern.”

This is not the first major problem Metro-North has had as of late. We have previously discussed the tragic derailment that occurred at the Spuyten Duyvil Station in December of 2013. Metro-North has also had other issues when two commuter trains smashed into each other during the evening rush hour in Connecticut in May of 2013. We have written generally about what to do if you are involved in an accident. Cases involving a municipality like Metro-North have special deadlines and prerequisites, some of which are so strict and inflexible that if they are not met, a claim may be forfeited forever. It is critical to seek legal counsel early on to protect a potential claim.