Commuters back on track after train collision

A weekend that began in devastation looked as if it would mean weeks of disruption and delays. But the destruction was repaired more quickly than many anticipated, and most of the injured were out of the hospital within days, if not hours, of the collision of two trains on the Metro-North New Haven line.

An eastbound train had left the Fairfield Metro station bound for Bridgeport Friday when something caused it to derail shortly after 6 p.m.

Fairfield First Selectman Michael Tetreau said after the crash that the first car remained on the tracks, but cars from the second back were off the rails and in the space between tracks.

A westbound train out of Bridgeport was unable to stop, scraping the side of the eastbound train before crashing into one of the cars that sat askew. The impact tore open at least one car, with one train intruding into the other.

‘Getting bumpy’

“The ride started getting bumpy and it was pretty clear that something was not right,” Wayne Travers of Shelton said. “Then it got very, very bumpy and the train felt like it was starting to get sideways, then there was a huge crash.”

Travers never takes the 4:41 out of Grand Central, but wanted to get an early start to a college graduation in New Hampshire Friday.

“I was sitting down, and when the train started to buck, I had grabbed on and braced myself,” he said. “But things were flying around.”

The conductor, who had been behind Travers as he was making his walk through the car, actually flew past and landed in front of him, he said.

Once the train came to a stop, though, the conductor immediately picked himself up and took control of the situation, directing passengers to evacuate, and making sure they did so safely.

“The train was tilting to the left, and the doors opened,” Travers said. “He was telling us not to go out the left side doors because there could be wires down.”

The damaged trains stretched from the east end of the Fairfield Avenue overpass in Bridgeport down along Commerce Street, under I-95 into Fairfield.

Police and firefighters from the Park City and Fairfield rushed to the scene. Ambulances, municipal and private, poured in from as far away as Waterbury. Helicopters hovered over the scene.

The first reports listed the number of injured at 22. That climbed to 49, then 60 as Friday night wore on. By Monday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said that 76 people had been taken to or gotten themselves to hospitals. As of Monday, seven remained hospitalized, one of whom is said by officials to be in very critical condition.

Friday’s wreck appears to be the worst Connecticut rail crash since two trains collided, killing two, on the New Canaan line, a branch line that is just one track, off the New Haven line, in October 1976. The head-on collision also injured 29. The engineer of the northbound train was blamed for the accident by the state DOT.

”I have no memory in decades of anything close to this happening, ” Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, said.

Passengers who were not injured helped others off the train. They were gathered in a fenced-in commercial lot adjacent to the tracks. Some left on their own. Others went to shuttle buses, which were escorted past dozens of fire trucks and ambulances by police.

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch and Fairfield First Selectman Tetreau were joined at the scene shortly before 10 p.m. by Malloy, who led a press conference, standing with the wrecked train behind him.

What happened?

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Saturday that a fractured rail had been found at the scene, but investigators had not determined whether it broke before or after the collision.

Immediately after the crash, the FBI and Homeland Security officials were notified.

Malloy said Monday that no indication of foul play has been found as officials seek the cause.

The governor also said the cause appears to be a failure of the train or track, and not operator error.

The crash scene is near a site where the electrical system above the rails is being worked on. That is reducing the number of available rails there from four to two.

Cars involved in the wreck were to be inspected off-site. Adding to the level of interest is that Friday’s is the first accident involving the new M8 rail cars, which have been in use on the New Haven line for less than two years.

State Department of Transportation Commissioner James. P. Redeker said Monday that these are the first cars in the United States manufactured to a new safety standard for “crash-worthiness and protection.”

“They obviously seemed to withstand a terrific impact and protected customers,” Redeker said. “A good part of the investigation will be around this new design, the new safety standard and how the cars performed.”

Rebuilding the rails

The NTSB returned control of the scene of the crash to Metro-North over the weekend, Malloy said, allowing an aggressive effort to rebuild ties twisted like ribbon amid rails tossed like matchsticks.

Metro-North and the state Department of Transportation crafted a plan for a commute without trains between Bridgeport and Westport. Shuttle buses were scheduled. The city of Bridgeport opened offices early. Malloy urged residents who could to work from home.

When those shuttle buses showed up to ferry commuters from Fairfield Monday, few showed up to take them. Malloy said use of the rail line in the affected area was down 81% Monday, and backups on Connecticut’s highways were similar to those on a regular workday.

Monday night, Malloy announced that full service for both Metro-North and Amtrak would be restored Wednesday morning, calling the railroad’s effort to repair damage to the nation’s busiest line “extraordinary.”