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Train crew at fault in fatal accident, federal agency finds

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Train crew at fault in fatal accident, federal agency finds



December 28, 2007



The train that dragged an alighting passenger to his death

Nov. 21, 2006, remains in the station later that day as

authorities investigate.[/float]

A federal investigation into the 2006 accident that claimed the life of a former Neptune man, who was dragged by the train he was getting off in Bradley Beach, blamed the accident on the train crew and cited NJ Transit for a rule violation.


The Federal Railroad Administration determined that John D'Agostino, 49, was pinned by his left shoulder and arm after a train car door closed on him. Because the early morning train's "end door bypass switch" was on, automatic detection of the passenger's plight was nullified.


FRA tests of the rail car with the bypass switch off — as it should normally be — showed the door would have reopened like an elevator door does when it bumped D'Agostino, and the train wouldn't have had power to move.


The accident occurred shortly after 2:15 a.m. Nov. 21, 2006, at the Bradley Beach station on the North Jersey Coast Line. D'Agostino was returning from Turkey to a Thanksgiving family reunion.


NJ Transit will be cited by the FRA for allowing the train to be operated with the bypass switch on and could face a fine up to $27,000.


The report also concluded that "had the assistant conductor been at the required location, the passenger caught in the door would have been seen and the accident would not have occurred."


The assistant conductor was supposed to be in the rear vestibule of the last car of the "working portion of the train" or in the last open door of the rearmost car of the three occupied cars of the five-car train, the report said.


The assistant conductor told an FRA investigator that she couldn't get to that position in time because she was opening trap doors to stairs on rail cars so passengers could get off on the low level platform, the report said. Instead, she took

up a position at a door on the second car in order to get the doors open by the time the train reached Bradley Beach, she said.


The report also said she failed to observe a red light on the side and inside of car 5514, "indicating a door was not closed" and failed to see D'Agostino was stuck .


Blame for entire crew

The engineer was faulted for failure to determine that the bypass switch in the locomotive was in the "on" position and not noticing that lights indicating a door was open weren't working, the report said.


The report also blamed the train conductor for failing to notice that the assistant conductor wasn't in the right position on the train.


NJ Transit conducted its own investigation and fired the train crew, which appealed that decision. The case is before a federal mediation board.


D'Agostino had initially been aboard an NJ Transit train that struck a woman on the tracks near Matawan. A "rescue" train was sent from Bay Head to transport the remaining passengers from that train, which remained in place as authorities investigated that first accident.


NJ Transit officials issued a brief statement on the FRA report.


"We don't comment on details that are pending litigation; however, this report confirms the conclusion of NJ Transit's investigation," said Penny Bassett-Hackett, a commuter agency spokeswoman.


Don Greer, the attorney representing the D'Agostino family, which is suing NJ Transit, said he is waiting for a copy of the report. The case was assigned to a court-appointed mediator in November, he said.


"It is disturbing to note the assistant conductor was not in the right place, but more disturbing to note the bypass switch (was on)," Greer said. "From what I've gathered, it seems the rescue train was understaffed."


Patrick Reilly, the general chairman of United Transportation Union Local 60, which represents NJ Transit conductors and assistant conductors, challenged the report's conclusions. Reilly had questioned the safety of rail car doors at an NJ Transit board meeting in July. The FRA conducted a second door test of the train in August.


"I find several items with the FRA report that are unaddressed," said Reilly, a retired investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and the FRA.


Among issues he raised at the July meeting were that the bypass switch may have been on without the train crew knowing it was activated. The FRA report notes that bypass switches can be turned on without breaking a seal over those switches.

It also says that red indicator lights on a door control panel for doors three and four in car 5515 had burned-out bulbs when tested on the day the fatality occurred.


The next day, Nov. 22, 2006, a FRA safety advisory recommended that NJ Transit "assess the rules, instructions and procedures used to ensure that a train will not depart a station until all passengers successfully board or alight from a train and ensure compliance with such rules and regulations."


Rule revisions, reminders

After the accident, NJ Transit issued four rule revisions and reminders about when and how the bypass switch was to be used. Those rule changes could count in NJ Transit's favor when it comes time to determine the size of any fine.


That part of the case is still open, said Warren Flateau, FRA spokesman. NJ Transit can make a case for a lower fine through an attorney presenting evidence on the carrier's behalf, he said.


"A settlement conference can address system-wide issues and what NJ Transit has done to ensure it won't happen again," Flateau said.


The fine is a statutory cap and isn't intended as a punishment, he said.


"The FRA can't say 'We'll fine you a million dollars' — we don't have the authority," Flateau said. "Our focus isn't exacting punishment; that's what tort (civil) cases are for."


The FRA investigation into the accident included a test of the locomotive and five passenger cars involved in the fatality. Two tests were done on the doors on the day of the accident and in August.


The test on Car 5515 revealed that the doors operated as they are supposed to when different-sized objects, including a foot, were placed in the way and the bypass switch was off or in the normal position. The only exception was when a three-quarter-inch piece of wood was placed in the door. It closed and the locomotive was able to draw power to move, the report said.

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It's not going to be easy for the crew to win their appeal. The judge or jury will most likely be sympathetic to the victim's family (even if, legally, the crew members aren't guilty).

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