L.I.R.R. Accident: How a Hazardous Rail Crossing Became a Deadly Crash Site

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It had long been considered a dangerous crossing, with more than 200 commuter trains barreling by every day, traveling up to 80 miles per hour — even as streams of cars waited to drive over the tracks. It was so worrisome it was one of seven hazardous crossings along a 20-mile stretch of Long Island Rail Road track that was scheduled to be eliminated, replaced with a bridge for trains and an underpass for vehicles.

The construction work at the School Street crossing, in Nassau County, was set to begin next year. But that was not soon enough to avoid a rush-hour tragedy on Tuesday.

Two Long Island Rail Road trains traveling in opposite directions slammed into a vehicle that had apparently driven around the crossing gates. Three people, all of them inside the vehicle, were killed.

Passengers on the two trains scrambled to safety, fleeing flames that they worried would engulf one train and dodging debris that smashed through the front of the other. Each train wobbled for a brief, terrifying moment, and panicked passengers dreaded that the cars would tip over before they could get out.

On Wednesday, officials were still determining how the vehicle had worked its way around crossing gates that witnesses said were down. Red warning lights had also been blinking. Officials said witnesses had indicated that the vehicle had been in an accident and was apparently fleeing the scene of that incident when it made its way onto the tracks.

Westbury

QUEENS

NASSAU

1 A southbound vehicle

swerved around

lowered gates and

onto the tracks.

Union Avenue

3 The westbound

train derailed

and crashed

into the platform.

Eastbound train

Westbound train

School Street

2 The eastbound

train first hit

the vehicle.

Westbury

L.I.R.R. station

Westbury

QUEENS

NASSAU

1 A southbound vehicle

swerved around

lowered gates and

onto the tracks.

Union Avenue

3 The westbound

train derailed

and crashed

into the platform.

Eastbound

train

Westbound train

School Street

2 The eastbound

train first hit

the vehicle.

Westbury

L.I.R.R. station

Westbury

QUEENS

NASSAU

1 A southbound

vehicle swerved

around lowered

gates and onto

the tracks.

3 The westbound

train derailed

and crashed

into the platform.

Westbound train

Eastbound

train

School Street

Westbury

L.I.R.R. station

2 The eastbound

train first hit

the vehicle.

Source: Image via Google Earth

By K.K. Rebecca Lai

An eastbound train that had just left the station in Westbury struck the vehicle first, spinning it around. Then, a westbound train going much faster bore down on the vehicle and slammed into it.

Sandwiched between the two trains, the vehicle burst into flames and was all but destroyed. “All that we have left of it is the engine itself,” the Nassau County police commissioner, Patrick Ryder, told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday.

The westbound train continued on its doomed path in a scene that some witnesses said resembled a disaster movie, with the train hurtling toward the Westbury station and crashing into the platform. The force of the impact drove chunks of concrete and pieces of metal into the front of the train amid a shower of sparks.

The engineer turned and grabbed a passenger in the first car, shoving the person away from the debris, Mr. Ryder said. The engineer would have been killed had he not abandoned his place at the controls.

On Wednesday, the railroad canceled 12 trains on its busy Main Line. During the morning rush, Manhattan-bound trains squeezed by the wreckage on one track because the accident had made the second track impassable.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Nassau County executive, Laura Curran, called for the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the crash. But a spokesman for the board said it had no immediate plans to do so because it did not see any broader national issues or safety problems.

Street-level crossings have long been a hazard in the New York City region, which is crisscrossed by three major commuter railroads with hundreds of spots where streets run across tracks. Last year, Mr. Cuomo announced a plan to replace seven crossings on the Long Island Rail Road — and add a third track for about 10 miles through Queens and Nassau County.

He said at the time that people had talked about upgrading the Main Line and improving safety “since the 1940s.”

There were six fatal crashes on the Main Line between 2007 and 2017, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent of the Long Island Rail Road.

One of them, at the School Street crossing in 2009, involved a 56-year-old man who apparently threw himself in front of a train, Federal Railroad Administration records showed.

Too often, the crossings invite a dangerous combination of cars, trains and human nature: impatient drivers who drive around the crossing gates, thinking they can beat the train. Drivers also sometimes disregard the gates after they have been down for a while, assuming they are stuck.

And by the time they have reached the gates, they have ignored other warnings. Painted on the pavement are railroad crossing signs and thick white lines that are supposed to stop motorists tempted to skirt the gates.

Mortimer Downey, who was a deputy transportation secretary during the Clinton administration, said grade-crossing accidents were a major problem for railroads.

“In a collision between you and the locomotive,” he said, “the locomotive is always going to win.”

In 1982, a van in Mineola, about four miles from the site of Tuesday’s crash, drove around crossing gates and was struck by a five-car train. Nine teenagers were killed in the late-night crash. The state built a railroad bridge over the crossing. But the project took 16 years to complete, at a cost of $85 million.

The crossing where the crash unfolded, at School Street in Westbury, was set to be eliminated as part of the $2.5 billion upgrade that the governor announced last year. The plan also called for widening or raising bridges along Long Island’s Main Line to reduce the chances of hitting abutments. The railroad also plans to install a positive train control system, and automatic braking system designed to prevent crashes if a train operator does not apply the brakes fast enough.

The Long Island Rail Road has 296 street-level crossings. Agency officials said the number of accidents at grade crossings had declined drastically in recent years.

In 2017, there were 17. In 2018, there were seven, all before the Long Island became the first railroad in the country to put attention-getting flexible delineators — rubber posts attached to the surface of the street that bend if someone drives over them — on all of its street-level crossings. The railroad also said it had worked with the online app Waze to ensure that GPS devices alerted motorists when they were approaching such crossings.

Sean Piccoli and Arielle Dollinger contributed reporting.

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