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What We Know About The New York Train Crash Site

Tuesday night’s deadly Metro-North train accident happened at one of the state’s busiest rail crossings.

The crash, which killed six people and injured more than a dozen, occurred when a packed rush-hour commuter train struck an SUV stopped on the tracks at the Commerce Street crossing in the Westchester County town of Valhalla.

The crossing didn’t have a history of recent accidents — the last deadly crash there took place in 1984, according to federal records — but more than 100 trains and 1,000 cars cross by each day, according to federal data. Trains can reach speeds of 60 mph as they pass through.

Commerce Street itself is a small, two-lane road, but the crossing is only about 100 feet from an intersection with the busy Taconic State Parkway. According to The New York Times, “There was a line of cars on Commerce Street leading back onto the Taconic and a witness watched as the woman in the S.U.V. found herself on the tracks when the crossing bar went down.”

Authorities knew the crossing had the potential to be hazardous. A predictive model developed by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) estimated that there was a 3 percent probability of a collision at the site in any given year. That’s the ninth-highest accident probability of any of Metro-North’s 44 rail crossings in New York and ranks higher than 90 percent of the state’s 2,675 crossings.

The model, known as the Accident Prediction System, uses a crossing’s history of accidents and its physical characteristics — mostly how busy it is — to predict the number of collisions that will occur there in a year. It’s an attempt by federal safety authorities to identify high-risk crossings. Nationally, there are about 2,000 accidents and more than 200 fatalities at rail crossings every year.

The FRA cautions that the model doesn’t necessarily mean a crossing is dangerous. It doesn’t account for factors such as visibility, road congestion or other factors. Mike England, an agency spokesman, said the model is primarily meant to identify busy crossings that deserve attention.

“It doesn’t really take much into account,” England said of the model. “It is meant as a tool for decision-makers.”

Even taking the model at face value, the Commerce Street crossing is nowhere close to New York’s riskiest. A freight-rail crossing on Quaker Road in Macedon, near Rochester, has a nearly 18 percent probability of a collision each year, the highest in the state. (Its most recent accident in the data set was a nonfatal collision in September 2014.) Among commuter-rail crossings, the Islip Avenue crossing in Central Islip on Long Island has the highest probability of a collision at 17.4 percent per year. Compared with those crossings, Metro-North’s aren’t considered particularly risky by the model; the system’s riskiest New York crossing is on Jay Street in Katonah, also in Westchester County, with a collision probability of 4.3 percent. (The railroad has three higher-risk crossings in Connecticut.)

Still, Metro-North, which has had a series of safety and operational problems in recent years, has recorded 10 crossing accidents since 2011, including a 2012 crash that killed two people when a train hit their Subaru in Redding, Connecticut. That crossing, unlike the one in Tuesday’s crash, didn’t have gates installed at the time of the accident.

Federal authorities have criticized the railroad’s safety record. In a report to Congress last March, the FRA found that “Metro-North does not comply with several Federal requirements for operating rules for the operation of trains over grade crossings under certain conditions” and ordered the railroad to make changes.

Ben Casselman is a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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