The New Jersey Transit train that smashed into Hoboken Terminal and killed a woman standing on the platform increased its speed from eight to twenty-one miles-per-hour as it pulled into the station, according to initial findings released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday.
The NTSB received information about the speed increase from the two event recorders onboard the train, as well as a forward-facing video recorder that captured the accident. At approximately thirty-eight seconds before the collision, the train’s throttle was shifted from its idle position to a more powerful one, accelerating the train. It was only a second before the crash that the train’s engineer, Thomas Gallagher, applied the emergency brake. At around the same time the emergency brake was applied, the throttle was returned to its idle position.
The train went airborne after it barreled into the end of its track, collapsing the roof of the station and killing 34-year-old Fabiola Bittar de Kroon. Around 100 other people were injured.
The speed limit for that section of track is only 10 MPH, meaning the train was going double the limit after it accelerated. A front-facing camera captured a large flash of light during the moments the train flew over the bumping post at the end of the tracks and came to rest against a wall adjacent to a passenger waiting room.
The recorders contradict what Gallagher told investigators following the crash. At an NTSB press conference last Sunday, the agency said Gallagher told investigators that he remembers the train coming in at 10 miles per hour. He claimed to have had no recollection of the crash itself and only recalls waking up on the floor of the train after the accident. Both the event recorders and an analysis of video from the forward-facing camera confirm the speed of the train at 21 MPH.
The NTSB hasn’t yet determined probable cause for the incident, although NJ transit was already under federal investigation well before last Thursday’s crash. Last week, NJ Transit instituted a new rule to try to discourage human error when pulling into stations, mandating that the conductor must now join the engineer at the front of the train, in case of a medical emergency. Gallgher’s cellphone was also recovered from the scene by the NTSB, who will be investigating whether he might have been distracted.
A mechanical malfunction has also not been ruled out yet, as New Jersey Transit has seen its rolling stock deteriorate rapidly as funding for the ailing transit system has been repeatedly slashed by Trenton. A federally-mandated safety system known as Positive Train Control, which could have prevented the accident by regulating a train’s speed, has yet to be installed by NJ Transit, despite a looming 2018 deadline. Earlier this year, NJ Transit told the Federal Railroad Administration that it had made “zero progress” in installing the system.
The NTSB’s investigation is expected to last at least a year before a final report is issued.