Union official says train engineer nodded
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
YONKERS, N.Y. (AP) — The engineer whose speeding commuter train ran off the rails along a curve, killing four people, nodded at the controls just before the wreck, and by the time he caught himself it was too late, a union official said Tuesday.
William Rockefeller “basically nodded,” said Anthony Bottalico, leader of the rail employees union, relating what he said the engineer told him.
“He had the equivalent of what we all have when we drive a car. That is, you sometimes have a momentary nod or whatever that might be. How long that lasts, I can’t answer that.”
Rockefeller’s lawyer did not return calls. During a late-afternoon news conference, federal investigators said they were still talking to Rockefeller, and they would not comment on his level of alertness around the time of the Sunday morning wreck in the Bronx.
Separately, however, two law enforcement officials said the engineer told police at the scene that his mind was wandering before he realized the train was in trouble, and by then it was too late to do anything about it. One of the officials said Rockefeller described himself as being “in a daze” before the wreck.
The officials, who were briefed on the engineer’s comments, weren’t authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Questions about Rockefeller’s role mounted rapidly after investigators disclosed on Monday that the Metro-North Railroad train jumped the tracks after going into a curve at 82 mph, or nearly three times the 30 mph speed limit. In addition to the four people killed, dozens were hurt.
“He caught himself, but he caught himself too late. … He powered down, he put the train in emergency, but that was six seconds prior to derailment,” Bottalico said.
Rockefeller, who was operating the train from the front car, was treated at a hospital for minor injuries and released.
National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener repeated that it was too soon to say whether the accident was caused by human error. But he said investigators have found no problems so far with the brakes or signals.
Alcohol tests on the train’s crew members were negative, and investigators were still awaiting the results of drug tests, the NTSB official said.
On the day of the crash, Rockefeller was on the second day of a five-day work week, reporting at 5:04 a.m. after a typical nine-hour shift the day before, according to Weener.
“There’s every indication that he would have had time to get full restorative sleep,” Weener said.
Bottalico said Rockefeller “never said anything about not getting enough sleep.” But he said the engineer had switched just weeks earlier from the night shift to the day shift, “so he did have a change in his hours and his circadian rhythms with regard to sleep.”
Steven Harrod, University of Dayton professor who studies transportation, said that trains typically do not have a speed or cruise control, but a power control, and once it is set, a train can pick up speed on its own because of the terrain.
“Thus, if the engineer loses attention, the train can gain speed without intervention,” Harrod said. “The power control could have been set” as the train left a station, “and then forgotten by the engineer.”
In case of an engineer becoming incapacitated, the train’s front car was equipped with a “dead man’s pedal” that must be depressed or else the train will automatically slow down.
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