I-Team: Metal Parts, Like Spare Track Behind Derailment, Litter Rail Beds in Subway System

What to Know

  • Preliminary investigation shows Tuesday's subway train derailment was caused by "an improperly secured piece of replacement rail," MTA says
  • At least 34 people had injuries including smoke inhalation, though all were expected to be OK, fire officials said
  • Photos posted to social media show passengers walking along the tracks in a dark subway tunnel, using their phone flashlights as a guide

After Tuesday’s subway derailment in Harlem, which transit officials blamed on a piece of spare track, the MTA said crews are inspecting "every inch of rail" to ensure that every replacement part "is properly stored and secured."

"Storing equipment in between tracks is a common practice employed by railroads across the country to accelerate rail repairs," the MTA said in a statement late Tuesday. "The key to this being an effective and safe practice is making sure that the extra equipment is properly bolted down, which does not appear to have happened in this case."

The I-Team did its own survey from dozens of platforms and found plenty of questionable metal parts, rail and otherwise, in rail beds.

At 68th Street, on the uptown 6 line, there was a metal part that appeared to be unbolted. On the downtown F line at West Fourth Street, a piece of spare rail also appeared to be unsecured. And at 116th Street, on the 6 line, there was a spare piece that looked unsecured and dangerously close to the subway rail.

There were also spare rail parts that were bolted down, such as at 125th Street, on the A and D line.

“I understand leaving the rails there if that’s what they’re replacing at the time, but how could they be doing it at the same time the trains are coming by?” attorney Robert Vilensky said.

Vilensky is an attorney who often represents commuters injured in train accidents. He says injured passengers have a real case against the MTA, especially if there’s a pattern of leaving loose equipment near the tracks.

“These people are going to hire lawyers,” Vilensky said. “They’re going to file lawsuits against the Transit Authority and the MTA, and the MTA will end up paying on these claims.”

Indeed, on Wednesday a woman who was on the train that derailed filed a claim for $5 million.

The MTA has suspended two supervisors who oversaw track work near the derailment, but on Wednesday, the head of the union that represents the track workers said the specific piece of spare rail that caused the derailment was shorter than the normal 39-feet stretch. The union said smaller pieces of metal are harder to secure with hammer and spikes.

MTA spokeswoman Beth DeFalco issued a statement saying, “equipment too small to be safely stored is never stored between the tracks,” and that in this case, “those protocols were not followed.”

But the I-Team found lots of other locations where smaller pieces of metal were scattered between tracks. Photos of the scattered metal were sent to the MTA, and the I-Team has reached out to agency for a response.

Railway Age editor Bill Vantuono say smaller pieces of equipment and debris can easily be snagged by equipment hanging off a subway car. He says that could have been the case in Tuesday’s derailment.

“It could have been hit,” Vantuono said. Let’s say there was a piece of dragging equipment on the train, like a low-hanging air hose that could have caught it and caused a derailment.”

Randy Clarke, vice president of operations and member services at the American Public Transportation Association, a leading public transportation group, says his organization believes storing replacement rail in between tracks is a common practice at many railroads and transit systems, especially those with limited space for storage. 

"Typically, storage of replacement rail in this fashion is done to expedite repairs or because of a lack of storage space in a near vicinity," Clarke said in a statement. "However, the key is to always ensure that there is sufficient securement to the rail ties so that there is no movement."

A section of the Rail Transit Systems Standards, published by APTA, lays out the standard for storing items along the trackway. 

“Material and equipment stored along the trackway shall be placed where it will not interfere with the safe operation of trains,” the section reads. “Placement shall be secure so that vibration from passing trains will not allow materials or equipment to move into the rail vehicles’ clearance envelope.”

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