NEW YORK — The commuter train that derailed in the Bronx on Sunday was equipped with a safety system designed to keep the engineer alert but it wasn’t installed in the cab from which he was controlling the train, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority confirmed Thursday.
Instead, the device was in the cab at the other end of the train.
The engineer, William Rockefeller, who drove the Metro-North Railroad train that went off the rails, during which four passengers were killed, experienced a momentary loss of awareness as he sped toward a curve at 82 mph in a 30-mph zone, according to his lawyer, a union representative and officials.
The safety system, known as an alerter, sounds an alarm when an engineer remains idle for 25 seconds while the train is in motion, said Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the MTA. The engineer has 15 seconds to respond to the alarm by hitting a button. If the engineer fails to do so within that time, the system automatically applies the brakes.
“The alerter requires the engineer to check in to ensure that he is awake and alert,” said Donovan. The system knows when the engineer is engaged if he moves the throttle or controller slightly, he said.
The 5:54 a.m. Poughkeepsie train bound for Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan shot off the tracks just north of the Spuyten Duyvil station and skidded to the edge of the Harlem River about 7:20 a.m. Sunday. In addition to those killed, 63 others were injured.
The derailed train, a diesel locomotive, was set up in a push-pull configuration, Donovan said. When the train headed north it was pulled by the locomotive and the engineer would have been in the cab with the alerter. When it headed south, it was pushed by the locomotive and the engineer was in the opposite end.
Donovan noted that the cab in which Rockefeller was operating was equipped with another type of safety feature known as “dead man’s pedal” designed to slow the train and eventually bring it to a stop of the operator loses consciousness.
The alerter has been installed in the new electric trains as mandated by federal government in 2002, Donovan said. Long Island Rail Road trains, which consist of mostly M-7 cars, he said, have alerters at both ends.
Federal officials have ordered the MTA to do more to improve safety, including creating a system whereby employees can report problems without fear of retribution.
This week, the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the cause of the crash, said the train’s brakes or rail signals were functioning properly, and alcohol tests on Rockefeller and crew members were negative.
Meanwhile, the MTA has received six notices of claims — the first step in filing a lawsuit against a governmental entity — from riders of the ill-fated train, said Donovan.