February 9, 2015 — The Star-Tribune reports that an investigation has opened into an unusual third rail design that may have contributed to a deadly train accident in New York.
The fiery incident occurred on the morning of February 3, when a commuter train on Metro-North Railroad’s Harlem Line hit an SUV parked on the tracks near Valhalla, New York, about 20 miles north of New York City.
In a hellish scenario never seen before, about 400 feet of electrified third rail snapped into 39-foot pieces and pierced the train. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) said the pieces went through the train “like daggers going into the heart of that chamber.”
The driver of the SUV and five passengers of the train died. Another 15 people were seriously injured.
It is possible that the “under-running” third rail design may have contributed to the disaster. The rail is designed with a metal “shoe” that slips underneath the third rail rather than skimming along the top.
The design has been used for decades as a way to avoid problems with ice building up on top of the rail. However, some have questioned whether the shoe may have acted like a crowbar and pried up the third rail.
Investigators still do not know why the SUV was stopped on the tracks. The driver, 49 year-old Ellen Brody, had three daughters and worked in a jewelry store. The railroad crossing recently had a number of upgrades, but a plan from 2009 to install more flashing lights was never carried out.
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