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 South Station incident occurred on Nov. 4 when an inbound train from Worcester struck the bunter on Track 9 shortly after midnight but Nickle said it was not originally reported by the crew, though he gave no reason why or how the accident was discovered. A spokeswoman for Keolis, which operates the commuter rail, told State House News Service the crew was placed on leave and the company is still investigating why they failed to report the incident.

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.

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Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

“We run through very, very tight streets,” he said. “Ours is one of the most challenging environments for buses.”

Poftak, while acknowledging the “daunting task” of gathering and reporting data more regularly because of the size of the system, said he would like to have more regular safety updates, especially in light of the South Station incident.

“I wish I had a better grasp of timing of the incidents,” he said.