South Station commuter rail accident unreported
Train hit safety stop but incident compared to fatal NJ crash
A PREVIOUSLY UNREPORTED incident in which a commuter rail train that struck a bumper at South Station was similar to an accident in Hoboken, NJ, earlier in the fall that killed one person and injured 100 more, said the MBTA’s top safety official.
Ronald Nickle, the T’s chief safety officer, said had the train been going faster than 6 mph when it hit the “bunter” designed to stop slow-forward motion, it could have triggered similar destruction as that New Jersey accident rather than just cause damage to the train and railroad ties.
“If that train had struck at a higher speed and gone over 10 mph, it would have torn out the bunter system,” Nickle told the Fiscal and Management Control Board during a safety update. “When I inspected the location, there is a column that’s within about 20 feet from that position, so if you had a train that compromised that, that would cause a similar type of event.”
Nickle said the bunters had been examined prior to the incident but after federal officials recommended transit agencies examine the systems in the wake of the Sept. 29 Hoboken accident.
The revelation of the incident, which came as a surprise to board members, was part of a larger safety update. Nickle said the accident was proof of the necessity of the Positive Train Control the MBTA is installing under a federal mandate by the end of 2018.
The train control system, which will cost $460 million with most of it paid in the form of a loan from the federal government, is designed to prevent collisions and derailments mainly by controlling the speed of the train through signal connections while still allowing operators to drive the locomotive with the safeguards in place.
“I believe this incident justifies looking at [positive control] system to see if we can incorporate an engineering design to limit this type of incident from happening,” Nickle said.
Nickle also said the number of train collisions and derailments in the subway system is steadily declining. He said in 2015, there was just under one derailment per “revenue mile,” the number of miles the T’s vehicles travel with passengers on-board. So far this year, the number of derailments has dropped slightly to .83 derailments per million revenue miles. The T averages more than 100 million revenue miles a year.
Nickle, in response to a question from board member Steven Poftak, said the data only includes derailments during service, not those that occur when a vehicle is not carrying passengers, so the number is higher.
Nickle also said bus collisions have remained steady, though the winter of 2014-2015 created a spike because of hazardous road conditions and impassable streets. But he hailed the T’s safety records given the type of streets drivers must traverse in the city’s neighborhoods.“We run through very, very tight streets,” he said. “Ours is one of the most challenging environments for buses.”
“I wish I had a better grasp of timing of the incidents,” he said.