NTSB: The Timely Pursuit of Truths

In Latest News by danapoint

160388718_94c60c810d_zA portion of the Hoboken Station commuter service has been restored this week, and full schedule at the New Jersey station should be up in a few more days.  Even the Long Island Railroad outside of Hyde Park has recovered from its derailment incident on October 8 and was back in service quickly. Despite the tragic loss of one life in the Hoboken crash into the terminal and the excess of hundred persons injured, everyone is grateful because it could have been so much worse.  It won’t be long until the commuters who depend so heavily on both train systems will shake their doubts and move on.  The network of trains, subways, and mass transit are survival-ways for weaving through the cities of East.

The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) has completed their evidence gathering, for now, and published their initial fact finding status from the train’s critical recorders but that’s just the beginning of their investigation.  If you look at the history of reports that the NTSB produces about accidents in all sectors of transportation, you’ll see that it will take between 10 months and a year to produce a final report. They are truly the definitive investigation body responding to the accidents scenes to which they are called; their findings are often used in litigation but their purpose is to determine what changes in process or technology might lessen the injury and loss in future accidents.

All completed reports include this statement:

The NTSB does not assign fault or blame for an accident or incident; rather, as specified by NTSB regulation, “accident/incident investigations are fact-finding proceedings with no formal issues and no adverse parties . . . and are not conducted for the purpose of determining the rights or liabilities of any person.” 49 Code of Federal Regulations, Section 831.4. Assignment of fault or legal liability is not relevant to the NTSB’s statutory mission to improve transportation safety by investigating accidents and incidents and issuing safety recommendations. In addition, statutory language prohibits the admission into evidence or use of any part of an NTSB report related to an accident in a civil action for damages resulting from a matter mentioned in the report. 49 United States Code, Section 1154(b).

cta_loop_junctionAt stake in most of the accidents are countless civil cases, insurance claims, and the persistent haunt of what human behavior may have contributed to failure.  What’s also interesting is that after the extent of each case study, the findings and changes proposed are not always fully implemented or remain “tabled” in the budget of the entities involved with the problem.

The NTSB is responsible for evaluating evidence for air, rail, water, and ground transportation incidents both in America and abroad for US Commercial interests. They do not, however, act on all incidents, even when there is loss of life because some incidents just don’t need their level of detailed investigation.  They are not involved the Long Island Railroad accident of October 8 (just over a week after the Hoboken crash). That was a derailment caused by a second train “invading the space” of the LIRR commuter train. While it sent 29 people to the hospital and as injured as many as a hundred who were treated at the scene, the NTSB has not been invited to participate in the investigation because there’s no immediate question of cause or fault. The self-policing Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and LIRR staff are looking into what caused a service train to be in the proximity of the scheduled commuter train and force its derailment. The MTA and LIRR, New Jersey, New York and the Eastern commuter rail service corridor have taken their lumps in recent past, and seem pretty confident of their ability to deal with incident.

A derailed New Jersey Transit train is seen under a collapsed roof after it derailed and crashed into the station in Hoboken, New Jersey, U.S. September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTSQ24C

A derailed New Jersey Transit train is seen under a collapsed roof after it derailed and crashed into the station in Hoboken, New Jersey, U.S. September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri – RTSQ24C

The NTSB is scientific organization that examines the full composition of accidents, a CSI team in their own right.  Their focus is on each factor that existed at the time of the incident, from the wear of bolts holding highway guards to weather conditions.  Famously, they have maintained the rail cars, engines or recovered planes to examine all the components possible and or use sophisticated computer modeling to test suppositions on how the accident happened. They use the results of basic test results too, like the ones that assess a person’s impairment level.  They also evaluate environmental damage (from grounded ship fuel spill, or exposure to chemicals) and plot strategies for how to prevent hazardous materials from mixing in the event of a derailment or collision.

Commuters are now returning to their rail stations for work as usual and the accident will dwindle from memory until the NTSB produces its report.  The accidents of the past remain vivid only to those who have suffered tremendous loss in the incidents.  Litigation is still ongoing for many incidents just as many new actions are probably brewing for the most recent incidents.   Most people don’t really appreciate the range of study conducted by the NTSB.   We can’t look away when they occur, but they are so easy to overlook and almost forget once we are back in motion.