YONKERS, N.Y. - A commuter train that derailed over the weekend, killing four passengers, was hurtling at 82 m.p.h. as it entered a 30-m.p.h. curve, a federal investigator said Monday. But whether the wreck was the result of human error or mechanical trouble was unclear, he said.
Rail experts said the tragedy might have been prevented had Metro-North Railroad installed automated crash-avoidance technology that safety authorities have been urging for decades.
The locomotive's speed was extracted from the train's two data recorders after the Sunday morning accident, which happened in the Bronx along a bend so sharp that the speed limit drops from 70 m.p.h. to 30 m.p.h.
Asked why the train was going so fast, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said: "That's the question we need to answer."
Weener would not disclose what the engineer operating the train told investigators, and he said results of drug and alcohol tests weren't yet available. Investigators are also examining the engineer's cellphone, apparently to determine whether he was distracted.
"When I heard about the speed, I gulped," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D., N.Y.).
Engineers may not use cellphones while on the train, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North.
The engineer, William Rockefeller, was injured and "is totally traumatized by everything that has happened," said Anthony Bottalico, executive director of the rail employees union.
He said Rockefeller, 46, was cooperating fully with investigators.
"He's a sincere human being with an impeccable record that I know of. He's diligent and competent," Bottalico said. Rockefeller has been an engineer for about 11 years and a Metro-North employee for about 20, he said.
Outside Rockefeller's modest house in Germantown, N.Y., police told reporters that at the request of the family any of them who trespassed would be arrested. Calls to the home went unanswered.
Weener sketched a scenario that suggested that the train's throttle was let up and the brakes were fully applied way too late to stave off disaster.
He said the throttle went to idle six seconds before the derailed train came to a complete stop - "very late in the game" for a train going that fast - and the brakes were fully engaged five seconds before the train stopped.
It takes about a quarter-mile to a half-mile to stop a train going 82 m.p.h., Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) spokesman Kevin Thompson said.
Asked whether the tragedy was the result of human error or faulty brakes, Weener said: "The answer is, at this point in time, we can't tell."
But he said investigators are unaware of any problems with the brakes during the nine stops the train made before the derailment.
The wreck came two years before the federal government's deadline for Metro-North and other railroads to install automatic-slowdown technology designed to prevent catastrophes caused by human error.
Metro-North's parent agency and other railroads have pressed the government to extend Congress' 2015 deadline a few years because of the cost and complexity of the Positive Train Control (PTC) system, which uses GPS, wireless radio, and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing, or going the wrong way.
Steve Ditmeyer, a former FRA official who teaches at Michigan State University, said the technology would have monitored the brakes and not allowed the train to exceed the speed limit.
"A properly installed PTC system would have prevented this train from crashing," he said.
On Sunday, the train was about half full, with about 150 people aboard, when it ran off the rails around 7:20 a.m. while rounding a bend where the Harlem and Hudson Rivers meet. The lead car landed inches from the water. More than 60 people were injured.
The injured included five police officers who were heading to work, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday the NTSB findings make it clear that "extreme speed was a central cause" of the train derailment. He said that his administration was working closely with the NTSB, and that when the investigation concludes, he will make sure "any responsible parties are held accountable."
The train was configured with its locomotive pushing from the back instead of pulling at the front. Weener said that that is common and that a train's brakes work the same way no matter where the locomotive is. Ditmeyer said the locomotive's location has virtually no effect on safety.