September 29, 2016

Big train crash in Hoboken, New Jersey.


"An NJ Transit train crashed into the station in Hoboken at the height of Thursday's morning rush, leaving twisted piles of metal and bricks as concern grew over the possibility of mass casualties and dozens of injuries."
"The next thing I know, we are plowing through the platform. It was for a couple seconds, but it felt like an eternity. I saw a woman pinned under concrete," [a passenger] said. "A lot of people were bleeding; one guy was crying."
Terrorism? The linked article has unnamed law enforcement officers expressing the view that it was only an accident. How is an accident like this possible?

60 comments:

Rick said...

The linked article has unnamed law enforcement officers expressing the view that it was only an accident. How is an accident like this possible?

How can they possibly know this so quickly? Apparently only some rushes to judgement are inappropriate.

Owen said...

"How is an accident like this possible?"

Texting while driving.

Sebastian said...

"How is an accident like this possible?" You got big stuff moving, on rails, with human beings involved. Therefore, accidents are possible.

"Like this" assumes we now what category it fits into. I take it we don't, yet. Which means it may not be an "accident" in the first place.

Chuck said...

No doubt; a revenge attack following the deaths of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

Om said...

Happened at Chicago's O'Hare airport a few years ago. The train went through a barrier in the station and up an escalator; it was going 25 mph. Since it was the middle of the night, the station was pretty empty. It took more than a year to re-open the station because of the amount of damage caused

The cause: The motorwoman fell asleep.

chickelit said...

I agree that it's too early to call it just an accident. It could have been terrorism or even human error like the driver texting.

MayBee said...

They always tell us it isn't terror, even if it is. So that is a non-starter.

But accidents like this throughout the world are almost always because the driver was going too fast or was, as Owen says, texting.

MayBee said...

I was complaining to my husband that law enforcement always says "no evidence of terrorism" first, and I said that is actually rendering an opinion. He said he sees it as a neutral statement. I see it as a non-neutral statement. "We don't know what happened" is neutral. "No evidence...." is only neutral in the way Obama wants things to be seen as neutral. It takes them too long to walk that back or to acknowledge they have evidence.

What do you all think?

Clyde said...

If the driver wasn't named Muhammad, probably an accident.

rhhardin said...

It's a slight downgrade into the end of the track, where there is a bumper. Apparently the train took out the bumper and ran across a bit of platform and then hit the waiting room wall, but it's much less than full force.

Most likely a brake failure, since nobody was reporting heavy braking before the crash.

The train has to cross a lot of switches so is going about 20mph prior to that, and probably kept that speed.

The Pennsylvania RR GG1 that wound up in the DC Union Station in the 50s gave better pictures.

JRoberts said...

Regardless of the cause, I'm certain Hillary will prescribe expanded federal government involvement and the hiring of thousands of new federal workers.

Unionized federal workers, of course.

rhhardin said...

It's possible for trains to run out of air. The brakes are applied with stored air pressure, that compressors rebuild between needing braking.

Maybe compressors didn't come on to rebuild the air supply.

But who knows how modern trains work.

SteveM said...

I was there at about 8:15 this morning and typically ride in the first car which is a quiet car. The motorman is located in that car. Typically the train crawls into the Hoboken station because of the numerous track switches branching into about 18 platforms.

This morning when I walked through the doors at the right of the picture, there were two guys in camouflage with M-16's, which happens every so often.

AReasonableMan said...

How is an accident like this possible?

ken in tx said...

Before we had plane crashes, the description of an absolute disaster was as a "Train Wreck."

rhhardin said...

I'm remembering it from trips to graduate school in the 60s and how much could it have changed, except the color of the trains.

rhhardin said...

The first car is a smoking car.

SteveM said...

No smoking in any car on NJ Transit.

rhhardin said...

Well that's today's pussies. The smoking cars were full and blue with smoke in the 60s.

mccullough said...

Atlas Shrugged

rhhardin said...

The trouble with plane crashes as disaster metaphors is there's usually not much left that's identifiable as a plane shape.

Owen said...

Maybee at 9:05: "...What do you all think [about how authorities report (lack of) evidence of a given cause of an event]?"

GREAT question. I think conclusions are often buried in what seem to be neutral reports of "facts." To say "We don't know" is about as neutral as you can get. To say "No evidence of X" smuggles in conclusions. Somebody (the authorized body to collect and evaluate what is "known") has looked at the input stack of data and tested it against some reference standard that describes X, and concluded that the data does not pass the test, ergo no X. But what we tend to hear --are invited to hear-- is that there is some objective reality where X has not been found. In fact, X may damned well turn out to be present, it's just that the threshold has not been met, and that threshold may be subjective as hell.

I guess all this is obvious but, as Mr. Jourdan exclaimed, we don't notice we're speaking prose all day long.

Peter said...

How is it possible? Could it be that, given a limited (if gargantuan) budget, it's more important to keep the unionized workforce happy than it is to install automatic safety systems?

rhhardin said...

A deliberate act would have run the train much faster into the station.

The train was going slowly, appropriate speed for the switches maze ahead of the end of the track, so it's most likely brake failure after that point.

Hard to arrange that deliberately.

I don't know about the line the train was on, but the runs through the tunnels going west are at a very high speed, so the brakes worked to slow that down, if that's where they were.

Owen said...

Peter @ 9:32: "…install automatic safety systems." If we can get self-driving cars, presumably someday we can get self-driving trains. I've ridden some (Denver airport, etc). It can be done! And then where will the jobs be? Where will the votes go?

Much better to have some bored and fallible dues-payer shuttling up and down the same track all day long, entrusted with the lives of thousands of people.

MadisonMan said...

The cause: The motorwoman fell asleep.

But at least she was subsequently fired, and pretty quickly. Although not for causing the crash -- but for failing to attend a disciplinary hearing.

rhhardin said...

It's not likely to be a motorman error either, unless it's a technical one like failing to attend to the condition of the brakes. No reports of last-second braking, and the motorman isn't likely to have fallen asleep between the switch maze and the end of the track.

Guildofcannonballs said...

This is Trump's fault.

"3rd world" talk and the sowing and the reaping.

How can people ensure safety when Trump has them anxious?

Anybody blames the victim, the person and persons who actually failed to prevent the disaster even though, ya know, that is their job aka what they are <<>> to do in exchange for renumeration, well, then you are the bad person I declaim.

Yes you. You and your attitude. You and your hatred of paying your fair share of tax safety fees. You who hate. You who sit around bitching and writing instead of saving puppies from the gas chamber and donating blood. You who watch the damn televised television shows on the TV.

I HATE ALL OF YOU!

glenn said...

I'd be looking for a cell phone on or about the engineer. And a video history. Saturday last I saw a guy watching one with his phone propped up on the steering wheel of his car.

Danno said...


Blogger Guildofcannonballs said..."This is Trump's fault."...."I HATE ALL OF YOU!"

Then why are you here? I haven't seen anything remotely cogent in your comments for years.

MayBee said...

Thanks, Owen. I agree, and you explain it so well. Next time I have this conversation with my husband, I'll invite you over.

rhhardin said...

The only previous NJ transit crash I remember was running a few cars into the Elizabeth river off a bridge or something. An apology letter was placed on all the seats after that.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

What's weird, is amid all the devastation, the scales at the other end of the platform remained firmly in place.

Chris said...

"It's possible for trains to run out of air. The brakes are applied with stored air pressure, that compressors rebuild between needing braking."

All air brake systems fail safe mode is brakes on. Air pressure is required to keep the brakes off. If air is depleted, the brakes are automatically on. This is the same for semi trucks and trailers.

victoria said...

It happened in Los Angeles more than once. One time, the engineer was texting. Killed a bunch of people,injured over 100. Happened again a couple of years ago. Someone wanted to kill himself, put a jeep on the tracks, train tried to stop, couldn't. Bunch of people killed,including the driver of the car, and many injured.

Happens more than we want to.
Rush to judgement? On either side its a rush to judgement to suggest terrorism or just a very bad accident. Lets wait to see whats uncovered.

Vicki from Pasadena

Owen said...

Maybee @ 10:02: "...invite you over." Thanks!

Chris @ 10:35: "All air brake systems fail safe mode is brakes on." Thanks for the reminder. So very very likely it was not that particular system that caused this.

One thing that we tend to forget is basic physics. Momentum is Mass times Velocity. Trains are MASSIVE. Even a slow one takes a lot of work to stop. I think if a typical freight train is going at 50-60 mph, a full-on emergency stop will eat up a MILE of track.

So: hard to stop in time. And then do the physics on the crash itself: kinetic energy (which is Mass times Velocity Sq) being dissipated in about 1-2 seconds and about no distance. Stuff is going to get crushed. Sorry, it just is.

coupe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rhhardin said...

All air brake systems fail safe mode is brakes on. Air pressure is required to keep the brakes off. If air is depleted, the brakes are automatically on. This is the same for semi trucks and trailers.

The trouble is that the reservoir needs to be refilled and the compressors do that.

Balfegor said...

How is an accident like this possible?

Happens all the time in developing nations.

The US is basically a rich country with the spending habits of a poor country. People claim we underinvest in transit. That's a lie. We spend loads of money on transit. We just spend it on stupid things like building high speed rail to nowhere, or the $4 billion train station (yes, billion) they built in NYC -- flashy projects, cargo cult construction -- rather than maintenance.

Welcome to the third world!

Virgil Hilts said...

Sabotage of Amtrak Sunset Limited train (Arizona 1995) was never solved - "the rails were shifted out of position to cause the derailment, but only after they had been connected with wires. This kept the track circuit closed." In 1939 City of San Francisco derailed by sabotage -- no arrests were ever made. 1992 Amtrak Colonial was derailed through sabotage of a switch by two persons.
This is just a sampling. But if you look at some of the bigger derailments in the U.S. over last few decades not involving a second moving vehicle, you get the sense that about 20-25% are due to bad maintenance, 15-25% sabotage or suspected sabotage, and the rest human error.
In this case, given the circumstances and timing, I don't think it is unreasonable to think probability of sabotage is closer to 30-40%. I would not bet money that this is terrorism, but it is not "crazy talk" to think it might be.

MadisonMan said...

There is no evidence that this was caused by Martians.

There is no evidence that this was caused by a rip in the space-time continuum.

There is no evidence that this was caused by a malfunctioning TARDIS.

There is no evidence that this was caused by legalized marijuana in Colorado.

There is no evidence that this was caused by Donald J. Trump.

There is no evidence that this was caused by emails from Hillary Clinton.



How come people in authority never say things on my list? They're just as informative.

rhhardin said...

It's not a derailment accident. It's a not stopping accident.

David said...

ARM, the Montparnasse Terminal accident in France was over 100 years ago. Systems have improved since then. Supposedly. We will probably learn the cause. Terrorism? Unlikely, but in these times you always have to consider the possibility.

AReasonableMan said...

David said...
ARM, the Montparnasse Terminal accident in France was over 100 years ago


As others have noted, where both technology and humans are concerned there is no fail-proof system. Failure can be minimized, at a cost, but never completely eliminated. The more things change ...

Peter said...

"All air brake systems fail safe mode is brakes on.

Indeed. Air brakes were invented for trains in the 19th century, and before today's "knuckle" couplers existed. At that time, the coupling mechanism for trains was typically just an iron pin passed through horizontal holes at the ends of the cars. It was not all that uncommon for these pins to break, as cast iron is a brittle material and sometimes train brakemen would apply the brakes a little too hard.

A basic purpose of these air brakes was, therefore, to automatically apply brakes on a car which had broken away from the rest of the train. Which would happen because the breakaway car's air hose had separated from the air reservoir in the engine.

Owen said...

ARM @ 11:42: "As others have noted, where both technology and humans are concerned there is no fail-proof system."

True. Trivially so, but in fact it is important to ponder Humans = psychology. And industrial psychology is a field of (to me) enormous interest. I haven't read nearly enough in this field but what I've read (e.g. "How Things Fail" and, particularly, Richard Feynman's account of his work on the commission investigating the Challenger disaster) is absolutely fascinating and very sobering. We fool ourselves so easily.

Here I suspect operator error but who knows? The failure modes are never closed.

AReasonableMan said...

Owen said...
True. Trivially so,


I am always surprised when people are surprised that things go wrong. In general, the surprising thing is that they go wrong so rarely.

rhhardin said...

Fail-safe systems fail by failing to fail safe. - John Gall (Systemantics)

Real American said...

It was Mr. Glass.

rehajm said...

As others have suggested, do not attribute to malice that which is explained by patronage jobs.

320Busdriver said...

Many newer cars have "auto brake" systems when closing with an object in front. I assume the ptc "positive train control" that keeps getting delayed would have applied the brakes and prevented this accident. Maybe implementing that system needs to be more of a priority. Delays have pushed it back to 2018.

Apparently NJT has no ptc in this area which is a spaghetti dinner of tracks.

Makes me feel a little less secure since I frequently ride NJT, LIRR, PATH, and MTA buses and subs between airports.

Big Mike said...

The fail safe . . . failed.

AndreaK said...

Eric the Fruit Bat said...
What's weird, is amid all the devastation, the scales at the other end of the platform remained firmly in place.


This is one of the funniest things I have ever read, although you might have to have a legal education to appreciate it.

Rusty said...

AReasonableMan said...
"Owen said...
True. Trivially so,

I am always surprised when people are surprised that things go wrong. In general, the surprising thing is that they go wrong so rarely."

It's something engineers take into consideration when designing systems. The fault is often faulty maintenance rather than a bad design.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Balfegor has it right.
Fantasy spending on "initiatives" and "sustainabilty" produces systems which fail in a short time. I can cite endless examples of small and large-scale projects suffering from this problem. "Suffering", that is, unless you can claim credit for "creating" the project in the first place, without regard to the reality of time and use.

Big Mike said...

Meh. Runaway trains are relatively rare, but do happen. Here's a dramatic reenactment of one that happened in a terminal in 1895. And here's another reenactment of a different Paris runaway into a terminal in 1988. In 1953, just five days before Eisenhower's inauguration, a Pennsylvania RR overnight train from Boston had its brakes fail while entering Union Station in Washington, DC. That engine went through the concourse floor into a basement -- here is the newsreel footage from the day. Note how the nose of the engine is poking through doors; there were estimated to be a thousand people on the near side of those doors when the crash occurred. The engine, a Pennsy "GG1" class locomotive, was extricated in pieces, reassembled, and ran for another three decades You can see it today in the B&O train museum in Baltimore.

In the 1953 and 1988 crashes the brakes were supposed to be failure proof -- and perhaps they were, but there is no such thing as idiot proof.

Rhythm and Balls said...

How is an accident like this possible?

Duh. Bad infrastructure. The kind of thing anti-government Republicans are all about creating.

Jon Ericson said...

Put your brains back in. I think they fell out.

Rusty said...

Fred Drinkwater said...
"Balfegor has it right.
Fantasy spending on "initiatives" and "sustainabilty" produces systems which fail in a short time. I can cite endless examples of small and large-scale projects suffering from this problem. "Suffering", that is, unless you can claim credit for "creating" the project in the first place, without regard to the reality of time and use."

The tracks and the station have been there a long time. For years prior to the crash trains had no problem stopping at the end of the track. No problems with the train and track for the 24 hours prior to the crash. The most likely cause is operator error or bad maintenance.

Bad Lieutenant said...

As of this morning on local TV, they said that Gov. Cuomo said that it might be terrorism. Got no background, so just a blip.

However, you don't need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.