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Friday, February 13, 2015
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You may or may not have read or heard about the tragic SUV – passenger train crash that took place on the evening of February 3 in Valhalla, NY, when 6 people were killed after the train caught fire from the SUV’s gas tank. There are plenty of stories in the press about all of the various fatal accidents, crashes, explosions and other sorts of mayhem that occur when the infrastructure of modern society goes astray. A new one seems to appear almost most every other day; a bridge collapses, an airliner crash-lands, a chemical factory blows up, a ship sinks . . . and this is just the accidental stuff, not even counting all the crime, terrorism and wars that happen all over the world. Then fold in all the diseases and physical disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc.) that nature throws at us. So yes, a fatal train-car crash in the suburban New York metro area doesn’t really move the dial too much relative to everything else going on in the national and world news.

But still, this accident sort-of hits home for me. Valhalla is not that different from Montclair, as they are both upper-income suburbs of New York. The Metro North line there is similar in many ways to the NJ Transit Montclair-Boonton train line that runs about a ¼ mile from my apartment. And I am an old “railroad hand”, was always interested in trains and even worked part-time for a railroad during my college years. So, I couldn’t help but give this one some attention. (In a way it’s sad how we have to “triage” what we get from the news; we just don’t have time to mourn and grieve for every unfortunate victim being reported in the news these days).

The woman driving the car, Ellen Brody was about 12 years younger than me; she was a mother of three, lived in an upper-crust suburban town (Edgemont section of Scarsdale) not far away from Valhalla, and worked nearby in a jewelry store (in Chappaqua). The news stories are unclear on the details, as they always are; but from the reports I read about what was said to reporters by witnesses and officials, it appears that the incident started when Ms. Brody was trying to beat a train crossing gate that was starting to flash in front of her. It was around 7pm, and she was driving north on the Taconic Parkway en route to visit a “new client” (it’s not terribly surprising to me that in this neck of the woods, a jewelry store sales-person would make an after-hours house call . . . houses in this area of Westchester County are often mansions). The Taconic Parkway had a traffic jam due to an accident, and Ms. Brody had followed the other cars seeking a local by-pass around the accident site. She was on a local road and was headed towards a re-entrance to the Taconic, which was right across the tracks from where the fatal train incident took place.

According to what a witness said (allegedly the driver of the vehicle right behind her), the crossing gates starting lowering, and Ms. Brody continued on towards the tracks. Then, the crossing gate hit the side of the roof of her vehicle (a Mercedes SUV), and she stopped just as the gate lowered behind the tail door and rear window. Having been around railroads a lot, I think I can tell you that when train crossing gates are activated by an approaching train, they don’t immediately come down over the roadway. The red warning lights start flashing and a bell usually rings for about 5 to 8 seconds before the gates start going down (one witness said that crossing bells were ringing, but others said that bells were not used at the crossing in question). The gates then take maybe 10 seconds to lower from vertical to horizontal.

This usually gives a approaching driver enough time to stop, or if they were very close to the crossing, enough time to get across the tracks – basically the same way that a yellow light is timed at a roadway traffic signal. Given that Ms. Brody was possibly going to be late for the customer appointment because of the Taconic jam-up, and given that the entrance back onto the highway was just past the train crossing, it might have been tempting for her to push it a bit and try to beat the crossing gate that just started to flash in front of her. This is pure speculation on my part, of course; but I certainly would be tempted to do the same thing in that circumstance (just as I sometimes try to “beat a yellow light” when I’m in a hurry — I’m not as bad as some drivers, but it’s hard not to at least push it a little when you are getting close to the light).

The NY Times ran some photos and diagrams of the scene, and it didn’t look like as though there was enough room between the tracks and the gate – so her car was probably stopped with her front right fender in the pathway of the train. At that location, the SUV would have been given a glancing hit, but not “T-boned” like it was. Ms. Brody supposedly got out to look at the damage on her vehicle roof, and was outside her SUV for about 30 seconds while the red crossing gate lights continued to flash. At some point in this process, she probably realized that a train was coming, so she got back in the car (as the witness said) and decided to try to pull across the track. (The Google map indicates a straight section of track of at least 1500 feet south of the crossing, and the northbound train was reportedly moving around 58 mph; so the train’s front lights would have been visible to Ms. Brody about 18 seconds before the crash; the train engineer also reports blowing the standard warning horn signals (two long, one short, then one long) for the crossing, which usually takes about 10 seconds, and then blowing constantly once he spotted Ms. Brody’s vehicle). It probably became a panic situation at that point; Ms. Brody’s decision to move forward put her SUV right in front of the train’s control cab, causing the terrible crash and fuel rupture that burned up the first passenger car.

With 20-20 hindsight, it’s obvious that she should have backed up, even though that would have damaged the gate and probably also the back end of her SUV. But obviously, she should never have stopped inside the gate in the first place. I was brought up with the fear of being in a car anywhere near the tracks at a railroad crossing. I remember some old movies and TV shows about cars stalled on the tracks with a train fast approaching (I believe there was a Superman adventure with that scene).

There is obviously a big federal investigation being held, and of course it might discover that Ellen Brody was taking some medication that caused disorientation, or she was otherwise incapable of proper judgement. Or perhaps there was a mechanical reason why her vehicle stopped just inside the warning gate; perhaps the vehicle had stalled. There might be a similar reason why she could not have gone in reverse at that point and taken the seemingly obvious way to safety. One factor that may have confused her was that the train in question was running on the “left-side” track. I believe that many people expect that when there are two train tracks, the trains always stay to the right, just like cars do on the road. But this line had signals allowing trains to run either direction on either track.

Perhaps Ms. Brody occasionally rode the Metro-North line to New York, maybe on weekends, and knew that there were two tracks and that trains usually operated on the right-side track (this is the preferred way to operate trains, even when left-track running is permitted; left-side running usually only happens when other trains are nearby, such as during the evening-rush hour when this unfortunate incident occurred). So, Ms. Brody might not have expected a train to be coming north on the track that her car was next to when she stopped and got out. Not seeing a headlight coming south, she might have thought that she had time to inspect her car and then either get across or make a k-turn and go around the gate. Actually, the train tracks in Montclair are the same – they are signaled to operate in either direction. It is fairly rare for a NJ Transit train to run “left-handed” thru Montclair, but I have seen it happen, sometimes due to train congestion.

Well, Ms. Brody is gone, so she cannot defend herself. Perhaps I am being unfair, perhaps the investigation will reveal that she was caught up in uncontrollable circumstances. Still, it troubles me that a responsible middle-aged citizen like Ms. Brody might have done something so dangerous, i.e. stopping her vehicle on the road inside of an activated railroad crossing warning device. Again, this is assuming that Ms. Brody was not unexpectedly incapacitated, and that her vehicle was not experiencing unexpected mechanical trouble. I don’t know about Westchester County, but I have seen the emergence in Montclair over the past few years of a somewhat dangerous attitude, implying that individuals now have “rights” over any and all moving vehicles. It seems that more and more pedestrians feel as though they can walk out in front of approaching cars anytime they like and the driver must stop for them. It’s especially bad with kids, but even adults are getting very lax (especially those riding bicycles). You have to be ready to hit your brakes at any time on any street, even on the major thoroughfares.

I’m all for courtesy, and I know about the state motor vehicle law that now requires cars to stop if a pedestrian is crossing ahead of them at a marked cornerwalk. But some people are really taking advantage of this, and they can easily get hurt if a driver isn’t paying attention (e.g. using a smart phone). I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Brody had something of that same Montclair-like mentality, thinking that perhaps that people have some sort of “rights” even against speeding trains (Montclair bans trains from using their horns at grade crossings – a reduction of safety in the name of “quality of neighborhood life”).

I’m not trying to insult Ms. Brody and those who knew her and loved her; I’m really focusing more on what seems like a growing attitude that liberal society and an expanding body of seemingly protective laws and regulations provides everyone with a cocoon of safety, especially in the better-off suburbs. Sure, there are plenty of mayhem stories in the news; but they usually don’t happen in places like Montclair and Valhalla. This is 2015, and certainly by now something must have been done to make sure that children (and thus their parents) could never possibly be harmed by a speeding car or truck or railroad train . . . right?

Again, I could be very wrong about Ms. Brody, and I’m admitting that right up front. Ms. Brody is remembered as a cautious, reasonable person — that’s why this case is so confounding. My theory that there is a growing and potentially insidious social laxity being caused by liberal protection laws may be totally irrelevant here. Something else might reasonably account for what appears to have been very bad driver judgement on that night at the Commerce Street grade crossing in Valhalla.

So it will be interesting to see what the federal investigation concludes. I’m not suggesting that protective laws should be repealed, but I am saying that training and personal responsibility needs to be concomitantly re-enforced for adults, and especially for children. We have to live in a world of speeding cars, buses and trains; therefore, a mental state of caution, responsibility, and even fear must be maintained in all of us. That is, if we want our social infrastructure to keep on functioning – because no roadway, train line, bridge, power line, etc. can be had without some danger to the public, no matter how many protective laws are passed.

It’s wishful thinking to want a mobile, dynamic, high-energy society where no one could ever get in harm’s way. The best protection remains what it always was – i.e., personal responsibility and common sense, the idea that each of us has to avoid trouble and stay out of the way. Even if that does cause us the occasional unpleasantry of inconvenience or delay.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:24 am      

  1. Jim, First, I must comment on the point you made: That things are getting pretty bad when we have to triage the news. I myself have noticed that for a few years now. I’m glad you mentioned it here. I’ve done some thinking about the fact that there is so much tragic and terrible news that one must pick and choose what is important to him/her to give some attention to. I have finally decided that the new information age brings us all this news that forces us to decide the importance to us. Before the information age, the same things could have happened, but we would not know of them because they were too far away from us and the news just didn’t travel that far and/or the population in certain areas was not as huge as it is in some places now. Therefore, the tragedies that did happen were not as numerous as they are nowadays.

    I guess we have the information age to give us the new phrase “triage the news”; you have come up with the very appropriate way to describe the situation. I find myself either saying a short prayer for those I cannot give my full attention to or sending good vibes their way. (Depending on your preference choose which fits.)

    Secondly, I’m slightly confused; and I think it’s because of the difference in how the “trains” “work” (I’m not sure what word fits here) to show the difference between how trains function in Chicago and its suburbs vs. how the “trains” function in Newark and its suburbs.

    A “train” is what Chicago calls a regular railroad train – no 3rd rail; an “EL”[evated] train (no matter if it runs above ground, on the ground, or below ground) has a 3rd rail. (Not too much sense as a “subway” in Chicago is the “EL”, but I digress.) So, here in the Midwest, the “train” involved in the Valhalla accident would be called an “EL” because of its 3rd rail. I should mention here that all the signals, rules are the same for both kinds of trains, be they “railroad” or “EL”. (The Chicago area also has trains that run on electric wires strung above ground and above the train – a third kind of “train”. I’m very poor at the descriptions here.)

    As to the damage caused by an accident on these various kinds of trains, I am not sure if there would much difference between “RR” trains and “EL” trains – *except* for the fact that, as I read the articles on this accident, it was mostly the 3rd rail penetrating the train car and sparking that caused the fire (together with the punctured gas tank on the car) and most of the bodily harm to the passengers on the (EL) train. (Regardless of the fact that it was running on the ground, the 3rd rail “makes” it [in the Chicago area] an EL.)

    For about half of my almost 50 years of working life, I rode a “Railroad” train (a 3 hour round trip each working day) to Chicago from the suburbs. On those trains I saw too many accidents: Accidents involving people who decided to use the train as an easy means of suicide, accidents involving pedestrians who didn’t “look both ways” when crossing the tracks, accidents when a car was deliberately pushed onto the tracks so the train would wreck it (to this day I think I could still identify the man in the car who took off after having pushed that car on the tracks), and various kinds of accidents involving train versus automobile. (Name the kind of railroad accident; I think I’ve seen it).

    In none of these RR accidents have I seen the kind of damage to humans as was done in the Valhalla accident. However, there was an accident in Chicago back in the 1970s, I think it was, where an EL train that was above ground was turning a corner literally fell off the “EL tracks” – there was an immense amount of human life lost in that accident. (It also was just outside the window where I worked.) “EL” train accidents almost always cause more human hurt and harm and more property than “railroad” trains; at least that’s my observation. My hunch is the increased damage is caused by the 3rd rail and the electricity involved. Usually, passengers on a RR train are pretty safe, but *not* on an EL train.

    In the accident in Valhalla, it seems to me, had the train been a “Railroad” train and not an “EL” train, the accident might not have caused all the human damage to people on the train itself; it certainly would have had the same effects on the poor woman driving her car. Gas tanks have leaked in accidents on “RR” trains I’ve ridden with no resulting fire; it seems to me the 3rd rail caused the fire and thus the deaths of several people on the train itself.

    Perhaps it was the fact that the woman who owned the SUV that was hit by the train was not familiar with travel in a car and railroad tracks. Sometimes it’s just an accident – e.g., when a seasoned railroad or EL traveler somehow forgets to “look both ways”, crosses the tracks, and is hit (in a car or out of a car). I have also noticed that people in a hurry are also more likely to have a RR vs car accident. (Last year we had one such accident here in the city in which I live where a car with several small children and 2 women went around the gates of a “railroad” train and got hit; all were killed in the car; no passengers on the train were hurt at all. For some reason people always think they can “make it”. If it’s a yellow/red light situation, the worst that can happen is a ticket (or in extreme cases lose one’s license). However, when it comes to RR trains vs a car; the train will *always* win. “EL” trains are another story given the 3rd rail and the electricity involved.

    Lastly, I find it strange that mention has not been made at all of warning signs regarding a 3rd rail at that crossing. Maybe there was, but I have not heard one word about that aspect of the situation. Seems to me that some serious warning signs must be put up regarding the 3rd rail.

    In the end, all we can do is (take your choice here) pray for those who were killed or hurt or send their spirits on their way with “good vibes”, perhaps both. (Of course, if one believes there is no after life, then there’s no use in prayers or good vibes; it’s all over for those who have died.) Still: I opt for a silent prayer for all involved in such a horrific accident that also must leave *all* on the train in shock and dismay together with those who read about that accident. So silent prayer it is from me. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 13, 2015 @ 3:41 pm

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