New York - The driver of a New York commuter train that derailed on Sunday, killing four people, told investigators he was “in a daze” shortly before the crash, sources said, and officials lamented his train lacked technology that could have prevented the accident.
The seven-car Metro-North train was travelling at 132km/h, nearly three times the 50km/h speed limit for the curved section of track where it crashed, investigators have said. The driver, William Rockefeller, 46, applied the brakes five seconds before it derailed.
The crash also critically injured 11 people and snarled travel for the roughly 26 000 regular commuters on the Metro-North Hudson line which serves suburbs north of New York City.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has cautioned that its investigation would continue for weeks, if not months, and it was far from reaching a conclusion on the cause.
Alcohol tests on Rockefeller came back negative, NTSB member Earl Weener told a news conference on Tuesday, adding the results of drug tests were still pending.
The train might have benefited from a Positive Train Control (PTC) system to stop or slow a speeding train, Weener said.
“For more than 20 years, the NTSB has recommended implementation” of PTC, Weener said. “Since this is a derailment, it's possible that PTC could have prevented it.”
Railroad experts have been advocating for PTC systems for years, but they are expensive and complicated and often incompatible for all trains within a single transit system.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North, said it began work to install Positive Train Control in 2009 with a goal of implementing it by 2015. The authority said it has budgeted nearly $600-million, with at least another $300-million needed, and even then was unlikely to meet the 2015 deadline.
“Much of the technology is still under development and is untested and unproven for commuter railroads the size and complexity of Metro-North and LIRR (Long Island Rail Road), and all of the radio spectrum necessary to operate PTC has not been made available,” the authority said in a statement.
Apart from the equipment and technology, investigators are looking at Rockefeller, a volunteer firefighter who was married two years ago. The NTSB interviewed him on Tuesday afternoon and would focus on all his activities in the 72 hours before the crash, Weener said.
He had never been disciplined for job performance in his 10 years as a train driver, his union said.
Rockefeller has retained a defence lawyer, Jeffrey Chartier, who did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
One source involved in the ongoing investigation quoted Rockefeller directly as having told investigators, “I was in a daze” in the moments before the crash.
Asked whether Rockefeller dozed off, the source said: “It's more like a highway hypnosis. You're looking straight ahead and you're seeing rail and rail and rail, and you lose perspective.”
A similar condition of temporary lapse of consciousness, known as microsleep, was blamed for a 2008 Boston light rail crash that killed the operator.
In 2003, assistant captain Richard Smith blacked out at the wheel of the Staten Island ferry and crashed on docking, killing 11 people. Smith pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Another source said Rockefeller told investigators the train was operating normally when he somehow slipped into a daze.
He could not fully recall what happened, except that at some point he suddenly came out of the temporary daze, realised the train was going too fast and into a dangerous curve, and applied the brakes, said the law-enforcement source, who has access to official reports on the investigation and requested anonymity.
“What he will tell everyone today is that he basically nodded,” Anthony Bottalico, the general chairman of the driver's labour union, the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, told reporters. “The best analogy I can give you is the equivalent of sometimes driving a car, you know. The sun hits you too much and you nod out and you catch yourself. I think we've all done that.”
If criminal charges are warranted, they would be brought by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, a spokesman for Johnson said.