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Recent Train Derailments Prompt Concern: How Safe Are the MTA’s Elevated Trains?

If you are a regular straphanger on one of the MTA’s elevated lines, and you’ve seen news reports on train derailments in the Tri-State area and throughout the country, you might wonder if you’ve got anything to worry about. A recent article by Ashley Fetters for Curbed New York suggests your fears are not totally unfounded.

First, there’s the history of derailments:

  • 1905 — A switching error derailed an IRT Ninth Avenue train, killing 13 and injuring 48.
  • 1923 — A two-car train derailed and plummeted to the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn, killing eight.
  • 1998 — A crash outside a train yard in the Bronx tossed two out-of-service trains off their elevated tracks onto the roofs of an unoccupied building and a tractor-trailer, sparking a fire. Only the train operators were injured.

Considering the miles of track and the centuries of constant use, three accidents seem almost incidental. But isn’t that just the point? Isn’t the rickety old system wearing out and due for a tragic breakdown? For answers, Ms. Fetters consulted George Bibel, a professor of mechanical engineering and the author of Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters, who explained that metro trains are inherently safer than ground-level train systems like Amtrak. His reasoning comes down to four important points:

  • Signals along metro train lines are automated, removing the danger of human error.
  • Metro trains are lighter than freight trains that put wear and tear on ground-level tracks.
  • The concrete and steel trellises of the elevated lines are more stable than the shifting soil beneath ground-level tracks.
  • Most train derailments are caused by objects, usually motor vehicles, on the tracks. Elevated lines don’t have to worry about these types of obstructions.

So, a lesser chance for human error, less wear and tear on the tracks, and no vehicles stranded on the tracks all create a lesser chance of a derailment. But one has to question whether Professor Bibel, who teaches at the University of North Dakota, has ever ridden the New York City subway, which according to Governor Cuomo is in a state of emergency.

The governor made that declaration in the wake of the June 2017 crash of an A train at 125th Street, which Ms. Fetters’ article does not mention, presumably because the train derailed underground. Still, 39 people were injured, and the casualties could have been much worse if the train had been elevated.

MTA commuters may not have to ride in constant fear of elevated train derailments, but the dilapidated infrastructure and overcrowded trains remain a hazard that the state and the city must find a way to address.

Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson represents MTA riders injured in transit accidents throughout New York. To schedule a free consultation, call us at 888.746.8212 or contact our office online.

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