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Federal Officials Mark Anniversary Of Metro-North Train Crash

WAMC Allison Dunne

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of what has been called the deadliest crash in Metro-North Railroad history. Federal officials Monday said much has been done to improve grade crossing safety since the crash in Westchester County, and other actions are in the works.

On February 3, 2015, a Metro-North commuter train crashed into an SUV that was stopped on the tracks at the Commerce Street crossing in Valhalla, killing five people on the train and the car's driver. In the weeks following the crash, federal officials pledged their commitment to improve rail crossing safety.

“We must continue working together to ensure these horrific crashes don’t devastate more lives,” Lowey says.

That’s Congresswoman Nita Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. The crash occurred in her district. She says measures in the Fiscal Year 2016 omnibus spending bill included her amendment to increase to $350 million funding set aside for grade crossing improvements in the Highway Safety Improvement Program, giving state highway departments additional resources to implement upgrades and safety improvements at dangerous crossings. In addition, Lowey helped achieve the following.

“I passed my provision to set aside $6.5 million for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop a high visibility enforcement paid media campaign that supports highway rail grade crossing safety,” says Lowey. “I had called on the federal government shortly following the crash to bolster education and the enforcement campaign.”

She made that call in March standing near the Metro-North crossing at Roaring Brook Road in Chappaqua, just miles from the Valhalla crossing. Standing alongside Lowey, President of MTA Metro-North Railroad Joseph Giulietti said improvements were in the works for the Chappaqua grade crossing. Today, completed improvements include better signage and pavement markings. The road and track beds have been resurfaced. Meanwhile, Administrator Sarah Feinberg of the Federal Railroad Administration says, to her knowledge, no changes have been made to the Valhalla crossing.

“Mind you, the NTSB investigation about this accident at that specific crossing is ongoing, and so as NTSB comes out with their findings they may well make recommendations,” says Feinberg. “We also do an investigation at the same time. We’re deferential to NTSB in terms of timing, but when we complete our investigation we may well make some very specific recommendations as well.”

The NTSB, or National Transportation Safety Board, in December released more than 1,000 documents as part of its investigation into the Valhalla crash ahead of a final report.

The spending bill also includes new railroad safety grants funded at $50 million, $25 million of which is available for Positive Train Control. PTC technology can monitor and control train movement in the event of human error. In October, Congress passed a three-year extension on the deadline to install PTC, moving it to 2018. Earlier last year, the FRA approved a $1-billion loan through its Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program for MTA’s Metro-North and Long Island Railroads to install PTC.

Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wrote several measures to improve rail safety, which were included in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, also known as the Highway Transportation bill, and signed into law. He also has worked on measures specific to rail crossings. Maloney says longer term solutions are critical, but costly.

“Obviously, better procedures and safety measures are always going to help,” says Maloney. “But really the long-term solution is how do we relocate certain crossings, how do we access them differently through underpasses or overpasses or other permanent improvements which are far more costly investments to make these areas permanently safe.”

Lowey says the MTA is busy assessing rail crossings.

“They have already assessed several local crossings, and MTA will soon meet with these communities in my district,” Lowey says. “This is an important first step.”

Meanwhile, lawsuits have been filed in relation to the Valhalla crash, the most recent coming from the families of two of the Hudson Valley men killed.

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