Derailment should not be downplayed

April 18, 2016

It’s unsettling that Metro-North Railroad dismissed the derailment of a train on the New Canaan line Thursday morning as “minor.”

Yes, no one was on board. Yes, no crew members were injured. Yes, it reportedly occurred in the rail yard.

Nothing involving the unexpected displacement of hundreds of tons of steel should be deemed “minor.”

Hundreds of people might have been on board. There could have been injuries. It could have happened somewhere other than the rail yard.

Also, the New Canaan yard is hardly the relatively barren site we are accustomed to in other municipalities. The end of the spur line nestled on the edge of a busy downtown. The line itself only has four stops after leaving the Stamford station, in that city’s neighborhoods of Glenbrook and Springdale, as well as Talmadge Hill before its final destination. Throughout the line, cars and pedestrians cross tracks that wind through busy communities. Under different circumstances, the consequences might have been horrific.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, a Wilton Republican who serves as a ranking member on the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, was correct to express concern about what might have happened if passengers were aboard. We encourage her, and others, to continue to raise their voices.

Though Metro-North is investigating the cause, officials for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says it will not be involved. All the railroad reported after the accident was that the train was rolling slowly when a wheel left the tracks.

Rail officials need to consider the incident as seriously as they would if someone had been killed. For several years, officials downplayed incidents on the line in which trains struck cars at crossings without gates because all of the drivers survived. This problem deserves to be addressed with the same urgency as if it involved deaths or injuries.

Commuters don’t take such incidents lightly. They have been conditioned to flinch when hearing of derailments. They anticipate news of deaths. At the very least, they expect delays in their commute.

On the heels of the derailment, a man was struck and killed by a Metro-North train near the Stratford train station Friday afternoon. The incident, the sixth such fatality in southern Connecticut since last year, was under investigation. Similar deaths were determined to be suicides.

Death on the tracks has become far too commonplace in the 21st century. The list is becoming too long to casually repeat. Earlier this month, two rail workers were killed and dozens of passengers were injured when an Amtrak train struck a backhoe in Pennsylvania and derailed. NTSB officials responded immediately to try to determine why there was equipment on the tracks.

The New Canaan incident demands answers as well. Metro-North needs to share as many details as possible about the cause of the incident. Taking a grave approach to addressing minor problems can prevent major ones.