By Brenda Flanagan
“The engineer says he has no memory of the accident. He remembers waking up on the floor of the cab,” said NTSB Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr.
That’s one of several hurdles facing investigators digging for the cause of last Thursday’s fatal train crash at the Hoboken Terminal. The National Transportation Safety Board did recover the rear locomotive’s black box but says the 21-year-old device’s memory was blank, too.
“Unfortunately, the event recorder was not functioning during this trip,” Dinh-Zarr said.
Officials say inspections of the rails and signal systems turned up nothing unusual. And the engineer — 48-year-old Thomas Gallagher — told the NTSB that he felt well-rested, his cell phone was off and the train was very crowded, but operating normally.
“As he approached the end of the station platform, he said that he blew the horn, he checked his speedometer and started ringing the bell. He said he looked at his watch and noticed his train was about six minutes late arriving at Hoboken. He said that when he checked the speedometer, he was operating at 10 miles per hour when entering the station track,” Dinh-Zarr said.
This contradicts eyewitness accounts — that the train slammed into the station at a high rate of speed. The collapsed and unstable ceiling continues to block safe access to the train’s second black box and outward-facing video recorders. Workers on Saturday started removing debris, working around buckled I-beams.
“The beams look like a dangerous version of pick-up sticks. We’ve all played that game of pick-up sticks, and if you incorrectly pull out one stick, it affects integrity of the other pieces,” Dinh-Zarr said.
The NTSB continues its fact-finding mission. Commuters coping with lengthy detours around the crash site blamed scant funding and poor maintenance, in part.
“Yeah, I do believe there’s a lack of funding, absolutely. I think there could be some sort of a correlation. I think if there were updates on a more regular basis, we probably wouldn’t have had this problem,” said Omar El Rabi.
“Isn’t money always the bottom line for everything? It costs too much. Put it off. Even though it’ll save lives. Put it off,” said Jackie Girard.
The Associated Press reported a plague of safety violations at NJ Transit prompted the Federal Railroad Administration this June to begin auditing its commuter rail services. Federal records show more than 150 train accidents since 2011 and note NJ Transit paid more than a half million dollars in fines due to safety violations. Politicians want to see that audit.
“Has the administration known about these safety violations and has not in the last number of months, advised everyone as to what’s going on? There needs to be answers. The commuters deserve that, as do their families,” said Assemblyman John McKeon.
Critics also point to chronic state under-funding at NJ Transit, which has diverted its capital fund to pay operating expenses and faces a budget deficit despite increasing fares and cutting service. The insolvent Transportation Trust Fund has offered little support, but gridlocked politicians cut a TTF deal just two days after the fatal train crash.
“Even if it’s demonstrated that the crash had nothing to do with faulty infrastructure or anything like that, the reality is, that this was centered on a transportation crisis and I think that that made the politicians sit up and take notice and say, ‘You know we’d better deal with this thing,'” said Montclair State University Political Analyst Brigid Harrison.
“Clearly it might be a wake-up call. Though there’s no connection at all between that accident and funding, because — my understanding — there was never an issue where there was a call to say, ‘Hey we don’t have the money to do this, and there is a safety issue.’ So I want to make that 100 percent clear,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick.
NJ Transit had no comment. The agency’s been operating without an executive director for more than a year, and hasn’t held a public board meeting in more than 100 days.