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Faulty Traffic Control System May Have Caused Fatal 2015 Metro-North Crash

MTA crews worked on a railroad crossing gate in January at the deadly Commerce Street crossing in Valhalla. It's been more than two years since five Metro-North passengers and a motorist from Edgemont were killed there. Photo Credit: Jon Craig
The scene at Commerce Street in Valhalla where a Metro-North train collided with Ellen Brody's Mercedes-Benz SUV on Feb. 3, 2015, killing her and five male passengers of the northbound train. The crash remains under federal investigation by the NTSB. Photo Credit: Jon Craig

VALHALLA, N.Y. -- A faulty traffic control system might have led cars to back up at a Metro-North crossing in Valhalla in February 2015, contributing to the deadliest train crash in Metro-North history, according to a Journal News/LoHud report.

Ellen Brody, 49, of Edgemont was the driver of an Mercedes-Benz SUV who had pulled onto the tracks just before the collision with the northbound commuter train. Five male passengers also were killed, and dozens injured, prompting multiple unresolved lawsuits. The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to release its long-promised report on the crash, as reported here by Daily Voice, after two years.

Daily Voice reporters have witnessed other mishaps and malfunctions of the Commerce Street crossing gates in Valhalla during the past two years.

Last year, the state Department of Transportation said the NTSB had said the Commerce Street crossing “functioned as designed." The DOT added that “further enhancements at this crossing – and others – are possible based on NTSB recommendations following the final report.”

But the Journal News/LoHud reported this week that nestled in the 1,000-plus pages of documents initially released by the NTSB following the commuter train crash is an analysis of two traffic preemption systems — groups of sensors that respond to existing conditions and modify traffic light patterns in response — in place at the Commerce Street-Taconic State Parkway intersection, roughly 100 feet from the railroad crossing.

The NTSB said a preemption system designed to clear traffic from the crossing ahead of an oncoming train had not been set up to take priority over another traffic-control pattern at the intersection, in violation of federal standards, the Journal News story reported. The state Department of Transportation is responsible for the parkway and traffic signals at rail crossings.

Phillip Russotti, the attorney for the husband of Ellen Brody, whose SUV was struck by the train, told LoHud that he expects discussion of the traffic light system's programming to be part of the NTSB's long awaited final report on the fatal train crash, now expected this month.

“This is consistent with one of the things we thought was wrong with this site,” Russotti said. “That’s why cars were backed up across the track."

Ellen Brody's husband, Alan, is suing Metro-North, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Mount Pleasant and the train's engineer, Steven Smalls, for wrongful death and negligence, one of many lawsuits pointing fingers over who or what was to blame for the crash.

The evening of Feb. 3, 2015, Ellen Brody was traveling from her job in Chappaqua to Scarsdale in her SUV. An earlier head-on crash on the Taconic Parkway at the Lakeview Avenue crossing had closed part of the state highway and, according to a statement given to the NTSB by another driver, Michael Mezzacappa, traffic was detoured onto Lakeview Avenue, resulting in "complete pandemonium."

Alan Brody has said he thinks his wife was confused by the detour and mistakenly turned right onto Commerce Street, which crosses through Gate of Heaven Cemetery and ultimately would have put her back onto the Taconic Parkway.

Instead of detouring around the first accident, she ended up eastbound on Commerce Street approaching the railroad crossing, where, witnesses told NYSB and police, her SUV stopped on the tracks as the gates came down, hitting her vehicle. She jumped out of the car, looked at the gate which had landed on the rear of her SUV and then got back in and pulled forward, according to witnesses. Her SUV was hit by a Harlem Line train, exploding into flames and then pushed 1,000 feet up the tracks, according to the NTSB.

A spokesman for Metro-North told Daily Voice on Friday that the railroad has no comment on the traffic signal report.

A spokeswoman for the state DOT said the agency has no comment on the newly-reported findings due to "ongoing litigation."

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