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Brakes weren't the problem in New York train crash, NTSB says (+video)

Federal investigators of the New York train crash said Tuesday that they did not find mechanical errors in the commuter cars that crashed on Sunday. Attention is focusing on the driver.

By Staff writer / December 3, 2013

A Metro-North passenger train lays on its side after derailing in the Bronx borough of New York Sunday.

Mark Lennihan/AP

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As the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the Sunday derailing of a Metro-North train continues, the possibility of mechanical error as a cause is slowly being ruled out.

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Katherine Jacobsen writes for the Monitor's international desk. 

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The NTSB’s preliminary investigations revealed there were no anomalies in the train’s brake performance, and there was no indication that the brake systems were not functioning properly, said NTSB member Earl Weener during a Tuesday afternoon press conference.

The train’s driver, William Rockefeller, who was injured in the crash, told investigators that he “lost focus” and went into a daze shortly before the crash, according to a Reuters report on Tuesday. A second source also said Mr. Rockefeller went into a “highway hypnosis” before the crash took place.

The Metro-North train went hurling off its tracks at 82 m.p.h. in an area where the speed limit is 30 m.p.h.

Whatever the findings on the cause of the crash, the engineer could be faulted for the train's speed alone, said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

"Certainly, we want to make sure that that operator is disciplined in an appropriate way. There's such a gross deviation from the norm," Governor Cuomo said on Tuesday, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Crew members, including Rockefeller, are being interviewed on Tuesday, and initial breathalyzer tests came back negative for all crew members, according to federal investigators. The results of drug tests are still pending.

Rockefeller worked for Metro-North for 15 years and has been an engineer for 10 of those years. Rockefeller had worked on his route – running from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Grand Central Terminal in New York City – full-time since November, according to Mr. Weener.

When Rockefeller clocked in on Sunday morning at 5:04 a.m., it was the second day of his five-day workweek. The engineer was scheduled to make two round trips each day and typically worked nine-hour days, Weener said.

The Federal Railroad Administration instituted new regulations on working hours in April 2012 to “minimize the fatigue factor,” tightening the number of hours and days commuter-rail employees can work.

The NTSB said its investigation will continue for weeks, possibly months, and the organization has not yet found a definite cause for the train’s derailment.

The New York Police Department is conducting its own investigation with help from the Bronx district attorney’s office, in the event the derailment becomes a criminal case.

"Once the NTSB is done with their investigation and Billy [Rockefeller] is finished with his interview, it will be quite evident that there was no criminal intent with the operation of his train," said Anthony Bottalico, executive director of the rail employees’ union.

Rockefeller, who has never been disciplined for job performance as a train driver, has hired a defense lawyer, Jeffery Chartier, according to Reuters. 

Four people were killed, and more than 60 were injured when the train derailed. 

Sunday’s accident is the second on the Metro-North line in six months and occurred about 2,000 feet from where the previous crash happened. In July, a CSX freight train carrying tons of garbage derailed.

The two crash sites both lie along a curve in the train tracks where the Hudson and Harlem Rivers meet in the Bronx near Spuyten Duyvil station. The area is a “slow zone” because of two tight curves that come in quick succession. In the area, the speed limit drops to 30 m.p.h., compared with 70 m.p.h. for the track well ahead of the curves.

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