U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called on Metro-North Thursday to alert transit and local police every time a train hits something, in response to the death of a woman on the Saugatuck River rail bridge last week.
"This lack of a reporting requirement to local authorities is unacceptable," Blumenthal said.
The Westport and Metropolitan Transportation Authority police should have been notified without delay last Thursday night after a Stamford-bound train hit something around 6:40 p.m. and made an emergency stop to inspect for damage and search for what may have been on the tracks. The crew found no indication that a person had been struck and continued on their journey to Stamford 20 minutes later. The next day the body of Maine resident Annette L. White, 46, was found in the Saugatuck River. Westport police did not learn of the emergency train stop until Monday when a concerned passenger who had seen reports of White's death alerted them to it. A subsequent search of the area turned up a mobile phone and an earring on a bridge pier later in the day that were confirmed to be White's.
"I'm just amazed and alarmed and appalled that there is no reporting requirement when the train hits a human being or an object that would be the size of a person," Blumenthal said. "If a train hits something on the track the operator should simply notify the local police."
It was determined that White died of blunt impact injuries after being struck from behind around 6:40 p.m. as she walked on the train tracks across the Saugatuck River east of the Saugatuck Railroad station, according to Westport Police.
In response to Blumenthal's statements, Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the train crew had followed protocols, and that after concluding the train had not struck a person and confirming the train was safe to operate, the train continued its trip to its final destination in Stamford.
Anders said that whenever a train crew finds evidence a person might have been struck, the Operations Control Center automatically notifies the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and local emergency responders.
"This protocol was in place and was followed for the tragic December 26 incident at the Saugatuck River," Anders said. "Train personnel stopped the train, got protection from rail traffic control to be able to exit onto the tracks, then thoroughly examined both the train equipment and the surrounding area but found no indication that a person had been struck."
The practice of inspecting trains after striking objects is regular policy, Anders said. Trains hit objects on the tracks on an average of once or twice a week, she said. Sometimes it's deer, but most often it's large tree limbs, shopping carts, or other discarded objects.
"Crews are very familiar with the policies for notification and inspections," Anders said.
Anders said that in keeping with an emergency order from the Federal Railroad Administration last month to ensure slower speeds on curves and bridges, a train crew member was alongside the engineer at the time of the accident to verify that the train was traveling 30 miles per hour or less over the Saugatuck Bridge, according to the railroad.
Blumenthal, however, said the railroad's lack of follow-up with police is evidence of what he described as Metro-North's management and policy shortcomings which are already being scrutinized after a punishing 2013 during which the railroad suffered two derailments and a major multi-day power outage.
Blumenthal said the installation of outward- and inward-facing cameras to record the tracks and the engineer could maybe have immediately confirmed that the train had hit a person.
Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called last month for the installation of the cameras on all train cars after the derailment of a train in the Bronx, N.Y., which killed four passengers and injured more than 60.
Blumenthal said he hoped an ongoing comprehensive investigation of Metro-North's safety practice by the Federal Railroad Administration would help spur a more proactive effort to eliminate safety issues before accidents.
"I'm hoping this investigation will be a positive influence but in the meantime they can implement this reporting requirement and take other steps on their own to improve safety," Blumenthal said. "These steps do not need to be delayed for a comprehensive report by the Federal Railroad Administration."
From Jan. 2004 through October 2013, there were 12 trespasser fatalities and an additional 11 serious injuries of trespassers on Metro-North New Haven Line tracks between Greenwich and New Haven, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Trespasser detection systems do exist. Professor Steven Ditmeyer, of the Michigan State Rail Management Program and a former FRA official. Some railroads have begun installing new trespasser detection systems on bridges in high traffic areas that are considered at greater risk to be misused by trespassers, especially teenagers.
In addition to notifying local police when a trespasser is in the right of way, it can also capture video and include a loudspeaker system which can issue either real time or recorded warning messages to get trespassers to leave the tracks, he said.
"It is probably too expensive to do it on all bridges but it can be done where there is a bridge in an urban area where there is a tendency of people to try to use it as a short cut," Ditmeyer said.