By Bill Parry
A federal probe into a fiery train crash last year faults the railway operator, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D–Flushing) announced Sunday. The crash occurred July 8, 2015, when a freight train operated by New York and Atlantic Railway (NYA) slammed into a tractor-trailer at the railroad crossing at Maspeth Avenue and injured the truck’s driver.
The tractor-trailer was leaving a warehouse on Maspeth Avenue when the train clipped it. The truck’s cab then burst into flames as the train dragged it for nearly 200 feet. The driver jumped out of the cab before his truck caught fire, avoiding serious injury.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) investigation concluded that the locomotive engineer failed to follow NYA’s operating rules and special instructions for the grade-crossing. The FRA found that the conductor’s failure to take any action to bring the train under control contributed to the accident.
“The FRA’s findings are very disturbing,” said Meng, whose congressional district includes Maspeth. “NYA cut corners, which put lives at risk. The faulty recordkeeping, inadequate training, unclear certification, and need for grade-crossing safety is indicative of other troubling practices at NYA, and we’re lucky that more accidents have not occurred with trains that company operates. The lack of clear records certainly explains why it has been so difficult for me to get answers about NYA’s practices in the past.”
The investigation was further complicated by the disappearance of the train’s engineer.
“FRA was not able to interview the engineer involved in the accident as he went missing immediately after the accident,” the FRA’s Focused Safety Review stated. “In the aftermath of the accident, the locomotive engineer left the scene and did not return to the railway. NYA subsequently terminated his employment.”
The FRA was able to interview the train’s conductor, who was cooperative and raised safety concerns regarding whether he had been adequately trained. The FRA identified several safety issues that NYA needs to address, including its failure to provide and document adequate training as testing of locomotive engineers and conductors, failure to issue certificates for the engineer and conductor, faulty record-keeping software, and the need for several actions to improve grade-crossing safety for motor vehicle users.
“The FRA’s findings are obviously unacceptable, and the way NYA functions must change,” Meng said. “I call for the FRA’s recommendations to be fully implemented and I will continue to monitor the situation until these essential improvements are made. Another accident cannot be allowed to occur, and public safety cannot remain at risk.”
NYA says it fully cooperated in the investigation and has already taken steps to improve safety and service including the paving of grade-crossing surfaces at the Maspeth Avenue and other measures.
“While we disagree with some of the conclusions in this report, we have already implemented FRA recommended actions and completed all the necessary crossing repairs prior to the report’s release,” NYA Chief Safety and Compliance Officer Thomas Leopold said. “We perform a vital service to the flow of commerce in New York City and Long Island, and hold ourselves accountable to keep our customers, employees and the communities in which we operate safe at all times.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr