Was the Engineer of the Derailed Metro-North Train “Zoned Out” or Sleeping?


As the facts surrounding Sunday’s derailment of a Metro-North train add up, it’s looking more and more like human error was involved. Sources told the New York Post and DNAinfo that the train’s engineer, William Rockefeller, was either asleep or “zoned out” just before the train ran off the tracks.

Rockefeller, a 20-year veteran engineer, engaged the brakes only six seconds before the crash. Earlier reports circulated that the brakes failed just before the event. The state of the brakes during the derailment still hasn’t been confirmed. (Given that the train had made nine stops prior to approaching the Spuyten Duyvil station, reports of wear and tear on the brakes seem less and less credible.)

See also: Harrowing Scenes From the Aftermath of Sunday’s Metro-North Derailment

On Monday, the NTSB determined that the train was traveling 82 MPH as it rounded a curve with a speed limit of only 30 MPH. The crash killed four people and injured 63 — 21 of whom are still receiving treatment.

There’s no indication Rockefeller was out late the night before, nor was he overworked, according to DNAinfo. Alcohol and drugs aren’t part of the picture, either.

Technology exists that might have prevented the crash. Known as “positive train control,” or PTC, it would have locked down the brakes of the train as it exceeded the speed limit on the curve. The Federal Rail Administration has mandated that rail systems install PTC by 2015. The mandate was passed in 2008.

The cost of installing PTC on Metro-North and Long Island Railroad tops $400 million. The MTA has requested an extension on installing PTC until 2018, noting in a document detailing the contract to install PTC that “compliance by the currently mandated date of December 2015 was not possible.” It is unlikely that Sunday’s derailment is unlikely to speed up installation, given the size of the capital investment.