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Federal Safety Investigators Head To Site Of Hoboken Train Crash

STEVE INKSEEP, HOST:

This hour, we really know just one essential fact about a train crash in Hoboken, N.J. The train was approaching the end of the track, which it would normally do very slowly, and witnesses say it was not moving slowly at all. Mark Cardona was standing inside the terminal when it happened.

MARK CARDONA: It wasn't at approaching speed. It was full, full force. The smash was so loud. At that point, there was no way of kind of seeing it coming and getting out of the way. Thankfully, I was out of its pathway, barely. But just visually seeing that happen is definitely scarring. I have no words for it.

INSKEEP: Our colleague Nancy Solomon of WNYC reported dozens of injured people, many of whom were moved to a triage area, which she says was just outside the historic station, which is sheathed in green copper there on the Hudson River waterfront. Governor Chris Christie has said one person is dead. NPR's David Schaper has covered quite a few transportation crashes over the years. He's in the studios with us.

Hi, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How do you go about investigating something like this if you're the federal government?

SCHAPER: Well, the federal investigators are on the scene. And they're going to start piecing through the wreckage - combing through it, looking at the tracks, looking at debris on the ground and looking for any sort of clue that can give them information about what might have happened and what might have gone wrong. But much of the most critical information is actually going to come from the data recorder on the locomotive.

INSKEEP: It's just like a plane? You've got...

SCHAPER: Just like a plane. And it...

INSKEEP: ...What they call a black box?

SCHAPER: It'll be able to tell them exactly how fast the train was going, whether it was still accelerating, whether the brakes had been applied, when the brakes might have been applied. And second by second, it can tell - we saw this with the Philadelphia Amtrak derailment a year or so ago. The details are so specific to the exact speed and whether it was still going faster or if it was, indeed, slowing down.

INSKEEP: Aren't there multiple layers of safety equipment on a train like this?

SCHAPER: There are certain controls, things like, if the operator takes his hand or his foot off the pedal and - or the throttle and something happens...

INSKEEP: If something happens to the operator the train should just stop....

INSKEEP: Then it'll slow and stop. But if the operator - if the engineer is doing something wrong - misses a signal, you know, falls asleep, as has happened in a crash or two before - and it's still accelerating and going through a signal or a stop post, there is a new system being developed called Positive Train Control that would override the operator's error and slow or stop a train if the operator misses that signal or misses the stop sign. But that has not fully been implemented most places in the country and certainly not on New Jersey Transit.

INSKEEP: The equivalent of autopilot or a driverless car has not quite come to commuter trains in New Jersey anyway.

SCHAPER: It's getting there, and there is a deadline at the end of 2018. We're a year away. But many of the commuter rails - train systems in the country are still far behind. SEPTA in Philadelphia's actually one of the ones that's ahead of the curve on this.

INSKEEP: OK. David, thanks for coming by. Appreciate it.

SCHAPER: All right.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Schaper who's going to be working quite a lot more on this story as we try to learn why a New Jersey Transit commuter train crashed in Hoboken, N.J., today. Scores, if not 100 or more people are injured, and one person is reported dead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.