Home New Jersey Transit Breaking: One confirmed dead as NJ Transit train crashes into Hoboken station

Breaking: One confirmed dead as NJ Transit train crashes into Hoboken station

by Benjamin Kabak
At least one person is dead and scores injured after NJ Transit train 1614 crashed into the Hoboken terminal this morning. (Photo by Ross Bauer)

At least one person is dead and scores injured after NJ Transit train 1614 crashed into the Hoboken terminal this morning. (Photo by Ross Bauer)

Updated: At least one person has dead and 108 are injured, including one critically, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced this afternoon, after a Pascack Valley line NJ Transit train derailed and crashed into the station in Hoboken during rush hour this morning. The FRA is heading to the scene to investigate, and witnesses say the train crashed through a wall into a crowded waiting area. Reports indicate that some passengers are still trapped in the wreckage, and casualty numbers may be higher. According to initial reports, the woman who died was not on the train but rather on the platform when the crash occurred.

According to those on the train who were uninjured, the train seemed to be going too fast as it entered the station, and images indicate that the train broke through a station wall, severely damaging the roof at Hoboken. NJ Transit is amidst an effort to install positive train control, a technology that can limit train speeds based on location, but the agency has not completed this work. Meanwhile, with New Jersey’s transportation trust fund out of money, work on most long-term capital projects has slowed or stopped completely, pending resolution of a debate in Trenton over the gas tax. That said, it’s not clear if PTC had a role to play in this tragic collision or if PTC could have averted it.

NBC News had more on the crash:

Preliminary reports suggest the crash involving train No. 1614 on the Pascack Valley Line was accidental or caused by operator error, according to four law enforcement officials, though they stress it is early in the investigation…It appeared the train went through a bumper stop at the end of the track. It came to a stop in a covered area between the station’s indoor waiting area and the platform. From above, chopper footage showed the glass arches atop the building crunched like an accordion over the platform.

Currently, all PATH service is suspended at Hoboken, and the Hudson Bergen Light Rail is not running into or out of Hoboken either. However, PATH service to Hoboken is expected to be restored by this evening’s rush hour. Additional buses were be added as well.

Images and video from the scene are coming through on Twitter and this is currently a developing story.

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Rich B September 29, 2016 - 10:24 am

What a terrible tragedy. My thoughts are with injured and everyone’s families.

Info is incomplete, but it seems likely that PTC could have prevented this. NJT didn’t even come close to meeting the national deadline of 2015 for implementing PTC. SEPTA and Amtrak did it, so certainly it was possible, had NJT made it a priority. Sadly, there were plenty of examples demonstrating the need.

And yet NJT is only aiming for 2018 implementation of PTC. I imagine there will be lawsuits over this delay, and NJT deserves to lose those cases. It’s shameful.

SEAN September 29, 2016 - 11:21 am

WABC reported that PTC in terminals like Hoboken is so cost prohibitive, that as of now it’s only going to be in streightaways & some curves like the spot in Philadelphia where Amtrak had a crash a few years ago.

George F September 29, 2016 - 12:00 pm

“Cost prohibitive”..

Is America a third world country?

A_L September 29, 2016 - 12:10 pm


a September 29, 2016 - 2:21 pm

Isn’t every piece of track either a straightaway or some curve?

SEAN September 29, 2016 - 2:46 pm

Translation – not every curve will have PTC.

I’m just waiting for all the anti-transit reactionaries to come out of the woodwork, and they will soon enough.

Nathanael October 2, 2016 - 12:06 pm

They’re not planning to implement full PTC in yards and terminals with low speed limits. It turns out to be quite messy to implement PTC when there are lots and lots of junctions.

There’s got to be a way to implement a speed limiter in those locations however. The speed limit is 10 mph already, there should be a way to force the trains to go that slowly.

Adirondacker12800 October 2, 2016 - 4:48 pm

Trains, even lightweight ones, going 10 mph don’t stop easily.

Nathanael October 2, 2016 - 9:35 pm

Yeah, but the armchair experts I’ve been reading say:
(1) the existing system forces the train speed down to 19 mph
(2) it was probably going at 19 mph

If it were going at 10 mph instead of 19 mph, proper bumper posts would have probably prevented it from hitting the roof.

Adirondacker12800 October 2, 2016 - 10:18 pm

Other ones are saying NJTransit’s SES would enforce 15. Or 10. The ones in a tizzy over the bumper blocks are looking at pictures and make all sorts of assumptions because they don’t look like the ones in their country.

Tower18 September 29, 2016 - 3:50 pm

Theoretically that’s okay, or okay-enough. If that were the case, a reasonable PTC implementation would limit train speed at the station throat to whatever practical speed would ensure it could be stopped by the bumpers…or perhaps by a more rudimentary block signal system within the yard.

Adirondacker12800 September 29, 2016 - 4:41 pm

PTC can’t stop the train if the brakes fail. It can’t stop precisely the right amount of dew from condensing on the track taking away traction the working brakes would use to stop.

Tower18 September 29, 2016 - 7:40 pm

And air traffic control also can’t stop rogue pilots. But we deal with the 99% first, and then worry about the 1%.

Adirondacker12800 September 30, 2016 - 8:55 pm

You are assuming it wasn’t brake failure or wet tracks or terrrrrrrrrurust didn’t spray the tracks with Teflon ™

Spendmore Wastemor September 29, 2016 - 8:49 pm

We are assuming that PTC could have prevented this accident. I’m not a railroad signal designer, nor is anyone so far on this thread. PTC is designed to prevent running through a red, or going over speed. Does the PTC spec even cover stopping at a terminal? IDK, neither does anyone here.

Betcha it doesn’t work in this case. If you set the terminal track speed to zero, the train never reaches the station. Set it to, say, 5 mph, and there’s yet another delay as the train grinds sloowly towards the station for 1500 feet.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that there’s a 275,000#, 4000HP diesel engine on the other end pushing the train. On a dry track that’s around 100,000 pounds of push in addition to in addition to crash forces arising from train K.E. If it’s commanded to push the train at even 10mph, it will run right over a common bumping post.

Eric F September 30, 2016 - 8:47 am

Great comment. Agreed 100%. PTC, assuming it was working 100% (quite an assumption) presumably prevents the recent Amtrak and Metro North derailments, but I don’t see what it would have done here.

While not the worst part of the tragedy by any means, the station is beautiful and I hope it can be repaired. It’s been used as a stand in for European train shed type stations, including in the movie Julie and Julia with Meryl Streep, where it was a stand in for one of the main Paris stations.

Tower18 September 30, 2016 - 10:58 am

There is much debate over whether PTC is necessary (or possible, but that’s for another day) in terminals, but I’m confused why it’s debated whether PTC, if implemented, could prevent this. Of course it could, it’s express purpose is to enforce speed limits and prevent going through a red indication (physical signal or otherwise). Given those two things, why would PTC not have prevented overspeed here, as early indications describe, and/or not have been able to prevent continued overspeed as the train approached the bumper? Seems to me this is precisely what PTC does.

In any case, as I said before, you don’t need PTC to have prevented this. An accident like this would have been prevented by NYCT’s rudimentary present-day system of signals and trip cocks. I’m not familiat with NJT’s signaling, but either 1) they have no controls like this at Hoboken, or 2) those systems failed AND either there was mechanical failure on the train and/or there was operator error.

There are not many possible excuses for this accident at Hoboken. It’s a terminal, not a curve mid-route. You pass through a tunnel prior to getting there, so hard to miss. And then there’s lots of switching in the yard (in fact, I’m not sure, but I think there are a number of moves required to get from mainline to Track 5 at Hoboken, so again, not sure how the operator would have missed that).

Seems to me operator error (or medical issue) is likely here, but I’m more interested in why 1900s technology wasn’t in place to stop it.

TimK September 30, 2016 - 11:09 am

An accident like this would have been prevented by NYCT’s rudimentary present-day system of signals and trip cocks.

Or the similar (but interestingly different) Moorgate control.

Spendmore Wastemor September 30, 2016 - 12:07 pm

@Tower. thx 4 the info.

Re NYCT style trip cocks: With NJT operating outdoors & subject to vandalism I wouldn’t want that system. It would also be a juicy jihadist target. But some other method, sure.

mister September 30, 2016 - 1:03 pm

So because a fail-safe system can be vandalized, it shouldn’t be installed? I’m not advocating for NJT to install enforced signals using stop-arms, but certainly the notion that someone could vandalize it doesn’t remove the fact that the operator could still react to a red signal as he does today in the rare event of vandalism.

JEG September 30, 2016 - 1:26 pm

So NASA could design the Space Shuttle to land itself, but we can’t design a train control system to bring trains into a station?

Alon Levy October 1, 2016 - 7:19 pm

Trains indeed crawl on the approach to terminal stations without tail tracks, PTC or no PTC.

FLTD October 6, 2016 - 5:57 pm

PTC and cab signals usually allow for manual override at sub- 10 MPH. This is because if there’s a signal malfunction faulting all traffic into a dead stop you need, for safety, enough engineer leeway to move the train away from a hazard like a grade crossing or switch and to be able to to crawl into a nearby station platform instead of being stranded. Inside yard limits the sub-10 override is a practicality because freight or passenger shunting activity between yard tracks becomes uselessly limited by all the extra signal waits, to point where the terminal can barely function. About the best you can do is go lower to a sub-5 MPH override, but that’s a balancing act that differs yard-by-yard, terminal-by-terminal for how low you can go before paralysis sets in on terminal traffic.

The engineer will still get dinged with an overspeeding penalty for exceeding the absolute limit of 10, but there’s additional latitude under that limit. Conductors have official supervisory duties inside yard limits to act as a check on the engineer to ensure that latitude is being handled responsibly. On this train the engineer did recall doing the mandated checklist upon entering yard limits: speedometer check, brake-tap test, and horn blow…all corroborated by the conductors. Since the signal system was found to be operating fully normally by the NTSB upon weekend inspection, overspeeds can be reliably ruled out everywhere except for that last 1200 ft. into the platform that appears to be the upper bounds of the area where something went horribly wrong.

Auto-stops aren’t bang-bang instantaneous, either, as they usually allow the engineer 1-2 seconds to react with a controlled brake application before the much more severe jolt of the brake penalty hits. So there are limits to how close that final-final stop signal can be placed to end-of-track before unimpeded inertia-of-motion is going to do its thing. You can’t completely eliminate the engineer override to crawl into the platform, otherwise the train will never physically reach the unloading spot for the first cars. The best you can do is set it at 5 MPH at the last signal, which isn’t going to 100% close the loophole for crashing through the bumper. For all we know that’s exactly how it’s set up within Hoboken, and the best feasible signal layout imaginable within the constraints of that terminal wouldn’t have changed a damn thing about the outcome.

All of this is why yard limits are the single most vulnerable place on any given railroad for train-on-train collisions or derailments from splitting switches mid-throw. About the best you can do is keep the speed limit to the tolerable minimum for the operator override within the constraints of the terminal district’s layout. But because the operator override has to exist to some degree–be it sub-10 MPH or sub-5 MPH–the “feature, not bug” part of the terminal district crawl is that the kinds of human-error fender benders and derailments possible at those override speeds are too slow and too direct a strike on the most fortified ends of the trains to cause serious onboard injury. If this had been an accident literally anywhere else on the approach other than that last 1200 ft. into the bumper post and roof supports the extent of injuries would’ve been a handuful of standees in neck braces. This incident just happened to hit an absolute hole-in-one at the singular point unmitigated by any of the usual design safeguards and probabilities therein, at a singular Hoboken-specific vulnerability where those roof supports are in easy strike distance of the bumper post. Collapsed roof lumped onto all the other damage sustained by the cab car from plowing through the bumper was just too much for survivability.

Maybe the only thing they truly can do is replace those flimsy little bumper posts with heavy hydraulic-compression bumpers (sample pic here: https://goo.gl/5NtfGA) rated strong enough to stop an unbraked 5 MPH train. Surprised they’re still using those nothing little ones at Hoboken given proximity of the roof supports. Other than that obvious change, maybe just moving the rebuilt roof supports as much as they can be moved away from the strike zone of a train that overpowers the best hydraulic bumpers money can buy. It’s still unlikely that the loophole can be perfectly 100.000% closed.

Fbfree September 30, 2016 - 10:14 am

While PTC will be a focus of the investigation, PTC cannot prevent mechanical failure and may not stop trains at the platform end. Therefore survivability is an equally important consideration.

The person who died wasn’t in or hit by the train, she was on the platform and was struck by the collapsing roof. Would a stronger roof support or a lighter (non-FRA) train have save her life? Would a lighter train have endangered or saved from injury some of the people on the train?

Eric F September 30, 2016 - 12:07 pm

Or, it’s an awful tragedy and terrible waste, but essentially a freak accident that likely doesn’t really pose much in the way of lager lessons or justify some enormous spend.

Alon Levy October 1, 2016 - 7:22 pm

Sanity check: terminal stations are common in Europe (Paris is famous for them), more so than in the US, where the busiest train station is a through-station and the second busiest is a terminal with excruciatingly slow speed restrictions in the throat.

Spendmore Wastemor October 1, 2016 - 10:36 pm

“Would a stronger roof support or a lighter (non-FRA) train ”

I’m guessing ‘none of the above’. Moving the roof supports out of the over-run area, or lighter, more numerous supports designed to break away when hit might work. But this type of accident is so rare that the next one is likely to be something different, and the fix for this will be a detriment for the next.
A non-FRA locomotive would still weigh over 200,000#, and even ‘light’ railcars would be near 100K.

In practice, you can’t fix everything.

Adirondacker12800 October 1, 2016 - 10:49 pm

The station including the canopies over the platforms, is landmarked. They can’t be changed easily.

John-2 October 2, 2016 - 12:06 pm

The only thing that could really be done would be for NDT to secure more right-of-way west of Hoboken Station to move the platforms to the west, so that the trains wouldn’t stop so close to the terminal (it would be similar to Track 1 on the 42nd Street shuttle, where the track continues onward to connect with the downtown 6 tracks on Park Avenue, but the passengers getting off the shuttle have quite a walk to get to the 4/5/6 platforms at Grand Central).

Odds are, though, the passengers using Hoboken wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of an additional 50-100 yards of walking each morning and evening to and from their trains just to create tail tracks for the station, just like Metro North passengers coming into Grand Central would be irked if their train didn’t stop any further south than 45th Street (and until the NTSB report comes out, we won’t know if tail tracks would have made a difference here, or if the train was just going to keep going to wherever the tracks finally ended).


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