BRIDGEPORT – Commuters face a potential nightmare of detours and traffic jams after the collision of two Metro-North trains shut down tracks between the Fairfield and Bridgeport rail stations Friday night.
Three people remained in critical condition on Saturday and more than 70 people were injured in the collision, which officials said happened after one of the trains derailed. Eight people were still in hospitals on Saturday, officials said.
National Transportation Safety Board officials said they have ruled out foul play as a cause of the crash, but would not speculate beyond that.
Investigators said on Saturday evening that they found a fracture in a section of the eastbound track, where the derailment apparently began. But the investigators are unsure whether the fracture happened before the derailment or as a result of it.
Meanwhile, Metro-North train service between New Haven and South Norwalk is indefinitely suspended, as is all Amtrak service between New York and New Haven, because no trains can get through the crash site. Officials said on Saturday that they do not know when service will be restored.
“You should begin making plans … for alternate travel,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said at a Saturday morning briefing near the site of the crash.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were on the scene on Saturday, and said it may take up to two days to finish their work. Until then, state workers cannot clear up the wreckage.
At a press conference Saturday evening, NTSB officials said the investigation is “still in the very early stages.” They said the fractured portion of rail was sent to NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C.
NTSB investigators have requested full inspection reports on the cars of the two trains involved, and will conduct a full inspection as soon as the cars can be removed from the track. The train that previously traveled that route also will be inspected.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates the Metro-North trains, was still working Saturday on plans for getting commuters around the crash site, a spokesman said.
Starting Monday, commuters who normally park at stations to the east of Bridgeport to head south toward Fairfield County and New York City will have to use other transportation to get around the blocked tracks, or drive to already crowded stations like South Norwalk or Stamford to park and ride.
That could clog I-95 and other roads along the coast.
Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, said these “refugee commuters” should not assume that a solution will be in place after the weekend.
“None of this is going to happen quickly,” he said, adding that the NTSB investigation can’t be rushed because the cause of the accident needs to be discovered to prevent it happening again.
“Commuters should leave early, think creatively and don’t all drive to Stamford,” Cameron said.
He suggested driving to one of the stations farther south on the line, or head west to catch a train on the Harlem line, which runs north and south in New York State. Cameron said he hopes there will be continued communication from all the agencies involved so commuters are aware of possible travel and parking options.
“This is unknown territory to a lot of these people,” he said.
Average weekday traffic on the New Haven line is 125,000 passengers — counting the full day, both directions of travel, according to the MTA.
On Friday evening, the eastbound 4:41 p.m. train out of Grand Central Terminal in New York derailed just east of the Fairfield Metro station, said Marjorie Anders, an MTA spokeswoman. It then hit the side of a westbound 5:35 p.m. train from New Haven on the adjacent track. Some cars on the second train also derailed, Anders said.
Cars on each train and the rails were severely damaged in the 6:10 p.m. collision.
“The damage is absolutely staggering,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who viewed the scene Saturday. The sides of some train cars were pulled away, he said.
The rails were an early focus for investigators.
“The informed speculation focuses on the track at this point,” Blumenthal said. “The trajectory of the train going off the track suggests that the derailment was caused by some breakage, fault or default in the track itself. But, again, it’s only speculation.”
Construction work has been ongoing in the area, mostly to the catenary system that provides electrical power to the trains, Malloy said. That work had already limited traffic to two of the four rails that normally would be available, and those two rails were destroyed by the collision.
Earl Weener of the NTSB said the agency will examine braking performance, the condition of the tracks and the cars and signal information in its investigation.
Officials have already downloaded data on speed, braking and other parameters from recorders onboard the trains, Weener said.
The MTA said that in addition to the shutdown between New Haven and South Norwalk, Metro-North is running a reduced schedule between South Norwalk and Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Buses are running between Waterbury and Bridgeport, with no train connections.
On Amtrak, limited Northeast Regional service is available between Boston and New Haven. Trains continue to run on Amtrak’s New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line.
“We will set up a system to move people from Bridgeport to the next closest station,” Malloy said.
He did not specify whether buses or other methods would be used to move people to and from stations on either side of Bridgeport.
Malloy met with members of the NTSB, along with Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, at the site of the crash around 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
Of the 44 people brought to St. Vincent’s Medical Center, 39 were treated and released by 10:30 p.m., spokeswoman Dianne Auger said Saturday. Five people were admitted, and one person remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit with spinal injuries, she said.
At Bridgeport Hospital, 23 people were treated and released. Two people remain there in critical condition with traumatic, impact-related injuries, officials said.
Passengers said they felt a harsh bump and saw a lot of dust and smoke in the air as the train derailed. Malloy said it appeared that one train began to derail as it approached the other, and the trains hit side-to-side.
Malloy said most of the injuries were in the cars that collided with each other, mainly the front car of one train and the third car of the other.
All passengers were taken off the trains, and buses were brought in to carry them to other stations so they could reach their destinations.
NTSB investigators will take a day and a half to two days to evaluate what Weener described as “perishable evidence.” The scene will then be turned back over to the railroad so that the damaged equipment can be removed and the rails rebuilt.
About 200 yards of track were damaged in the crash, Malloy said.
The state Department of Transportation has already hired contractors to remove the damaged equipment so that repairs can begin. Connecticut owns the tracks between New Haven and the New York state line.
Officials said Friday and Saturday that as bad as the crash was, it could have been worse. That the trains had mostly a side impact versus a head-on crash prevented even more injuries.
“We dodged a bullet,” Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch said.
The trains involved in the crash consisted of the new M-8 commuter cars, which started operating on the New Haven line in 2011. Connecticut and Metro-North are buying 405 of the cars to replace a fleet that dates to the early 1970s.
Malloy and Blumenthal said the new cars, built to high safety standards, may have helped limit serious injuries in the crash.
The DOT and Metro-North are junking hundreds of battered rail cars from the busy New Haven line as they phase in 405 sleek, high-tech new M-8s. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy expedited the long-overdue fleet replacement, and as of mid-October nearly 140 of the new cars were in daily operation.
“The newly constructed cars, the higher standards of quality, seemed to have made a difference,” Blumenthal said.
“The crash worthiness of the cars seemed to be remarkably good,” added the NTSB’s Weener.
“These are new cars designed to the latest standards,” Malloy said.
The Federal Rail Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, sets those crash worthiness standards. The agency has been criticized for its high standards, which make equipment commonly used in Europe unsuitable for use in the U.S.
The higher standards increase costs for equipment used in the U.S. The FRA continues to research ways to increase survivability in train crashes.
– By KELLY GLISTA, DAVID OWENS AND JENNY WILSON