The locomotive that crashed into a tractor-trailer at a Maspeth intersection on July 8 was traveling above the speed limit, and the man behind the switch could face disciplinary action, authorities reported.
The early-morning accident at the six-track railroad crossing on Maspeth Avenue near Rust Street caused the truck to burst into flames. The driver managed to escape with injuries not considered life-threatening.
Sources familiar with the investigation told The Courier on Tuesday that the train was moving at a minimum of 20 mph; the railroad speed limit for the area is 15 mph. Reportedly, the engineer operating the train is now facing disciplinary action.
Video of the accident obtained by The Courier shows the railroad crossing gates on Maspeth Avenue activated only at the moment of impact. A source familiar with the situation said the train’s faster speed may have delayed the gate’s activation.
But a union official, in a WABC-TV report on Tuesday, claimed one part of the gate “never comes down normally.”
New York and Atlantic Railway (NYA) President Paul Victor disagreed with notions that the gate malfunctioned, but conceded the Maspeth Avenue crossing’s design is flawed and requires improvement. The NYA reportedly asked the state Transportation Department to evaluate the signal system and the crossing’s logistics.
“Given the accident and the understanding that there have been other incidents there, it certainly makes logical sense to do an engineering evaluation of that crossing,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a heavily trafficked route with lots of trucks and commercial traffic that goes back and forth. It’s a very unusual crossing.”
The crossing is part of the Long Island Rail Road’s Montauk branch extension, which is leased exclusively to NYA west of Jamaica for its freight rail operations. Wednesday’s accident raised concerns among local residents regarding the safety at other at-grade railroad crossings along the line, such as the one on 88th Street in Glendale.
According to Community Board 5 Chairperson Vincent Arcuri, the rail switches activating the crossing gates at 88th Street are dependent upon train speed. When passenger trains operated on the Montauk branch west of Jamaica, the switches were located 300 feet away from the crossing because the trains moved at 40 mph.
With the line exclusively used for freight rail and all trains limited to 15 mph, the switches were relocated to within 10 to 20 feet of the crossing, he noted. Freight train operators were also instructed to slow down when coming to a crossing, then send a crew member out to check that the crossing gates were activated before proceeding.
This change, Arcuri said, makes drivers and pedestrians at the 88th Street crossing especially “nervous,” as they can see the train very close to the crossing well before the gates are activated.
“The LIRR decided when they stopped the two passenger train runs to abandon the passenger line and turn it over [to NYA] as a freight line so they didn’t have to upgrade the signal system,” he added. The board has requested that the LIRR move the signal switch further back at 88th Street and other local at-grade crossings for safety’s sake.
Arcuri, however, claimed the freight signal system in place on the Montauk line is similar to that used on the Bushwick branch of the LIRR — which links up to the Montauk line — and other freight rail systems across the U.S. for generations.