NEW YORK — The driver of a sport utility vehicle that was hit by a Metro-North Railroad train caused the accident that killed her and five train passengers when she drove onto the tracks in Westchester County two years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
But the board said it could not answer a key question: why the woman drove forward — into the path of the train after a crossing arm came down on her vehicle — rather than back up.
Still, the severity of the accident was exacerbated by the track itself. The electrified third rail was constructed in such a way that the crash caused it to rip away and tear through the train.
The safety board’s findings brought a painful finality to efforts by driver’s family, who had conducted their own investigation to determine the cause and blamed the Metro-North railway for her death. It also has wide-ranging implications for Metro-North, one of the nation’s busiest railroads: the same type of track is used throughout its sprawling network.
The board recommended extensive study of such tracks at rail crossings nationwide to determine if they are safe.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North, said it would comply with the safety board’s recommendation.
“Our hearts go out to the families and individuals who were affected by the tragic and unprecedented accident,” Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the authority, said. “We appreciate the thorough investigation performed by the National Transportation Safety Board, which found that no action or inaction on the part of Metro-North Railroad contributed to the cause of the accident.”
The fiery crash at the height of the evening rush on February 3, 2015, killed the driver of the SUV, Ellen Brody, 49, and five people aboard the train, which was traveling north through Westchester County when it barreled into Brody’s SUV at a rail crossing north of the Valhalla station.
The extensive investigation focused on several factors, including signals at the crossing, the train engineer and Brody’s actions. While the safety board laid responsibility on Brody, who according to a witness exited her car to inspect it after the crossing arm came down, got back inside and suddenly drove forward, investigators could not determine why.
“Unfortunately for those looking for answers, sometimes we cannot absolutely explain human behavior, especially when we don’t have that person to talk to,” Robert L. Sumwalt, the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said during the board hearing in Washington to determine the cause.
Investigators had invested a significant amount of time trying to figure out “the mindset of the driver,” Michael Hiller, a rail safety investigator, said at the hearing.
Investigators interviewed the driver’s husband, Alan Brody, about issues like her sleep habits and her state of mind. Fatigue and stress were ruled out as factors. In addition, Brody had no drugs or alcohol in her system at the time of the crash and, according to phone records, was not using her cellphone.
It could not be determined whether she was listening to music as the train approached and sounded its horn, investigators said, because the car was destroyed in the crash.
Alan Brody, who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Metro-North last year, was dismayed by the board’s conclusion. The findings, he said, overlooked several factors, including the fact that the signs painted on road pavement warning drivers that a railroad crossing was ahead were likely obscured by cars traveling above and what he believes are flaws in signal systems at the crossing.
“The only possible way that I can comprehend the loss of my wife, is that her life is some sort of sacrifice for a higher purpose — which is to help the nation’s safety,” Alan Brody said after the ruling. “That absolutely did not happen today.”
The crash was the deadliest in the history of Metro-North and while trains hit cars with some regularity across the country, the death toll is usually limited to the occupants of the vehicle that is hit. And though questions were raised about whether the system of crossing signals, known as a pre-emption system, played a role in the Metro-North crash, the transportation safety board concluded that the signals were not to blame.
Ultimately, investigators zeroed in on the third rail as an exacerbating issue. It did not break apart in the collision as might have been expected. Instead it remained intact and pierced the body of the train in several places, trapping some of the more than 650 passengers aboard.
One of the chief questions became, “Why did the third rail penetrate the rail cars during the accident, without breaking away?” said Dr. Xiaohu Liu, a transportation safety board analyst at the hearing. “Metro-North’s current third rail system may increase the severity of damages and injuries when accidents occur at or near grade crossing.”
Despite the board’s conclusion, its inability to understand Brody’s actions left members dissatisfied.
“We are all really troubled with why this happened,” Christopher A. Hart, a member of the transportation board said. “Because without knowing why this happened, we are less able to figure out what to do to keep it from happening. “