The 5 victims in the horrific Metro-North collision in Valhalla will be listed in the official statistics as train fatalities — even though it was an automobile that killed them. Each year, there are tens of thousands of automobile fatalities, but for some reason, the NTSB only investigates crashes involving trains or other mass transit.
Based on previous work by the NTSB, one can expect their report to focus on accident survivability, not accident avoidance. The key question isn’t what role the 3rd rail played, or the design of the road — but why the grade crossing was even there in the first place?
The Commerce St. grade crossing has little traffic, and is located just 1 mile away from grade-separated crossings in both north and south directions. Closing the crossing to motor vehicles is the obvious solution. It would greatly increase safety, with only minor time penalty for motorists.
Metro-North has such a large number of crossings similar to this one that it begs the question as to why they are left open to motor vehicles. A systematic approach to closing minor at-grade crossings that are in close proximity to grade-separated roadways would greatly increase safety, with only minor impact on motor vehicles. Note that crossings could still be left open to bikes/peds, avoiding the “Berlin-Wall” effect. The reason this has not been done is because small inconveniences for motorists takes precedence over the safety of train passengers. Hopefully this latest tragedy will lead to a change in priorities.
And it is not a problem unique to Metro-North. In the SF Bay Area, the Caltrain line has a number of minor at-grade crossings that should be closed to motor vehicles. It is just dumb luck that Caltrain has not experienced a mass casualty event. And when the agency starts using EMU’s, you can be sure the knives will come out if one of those “dangerous” non-compliant trains were involved in a fatal accident.