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AirTrain slated to resume test runs after fatal crash

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The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey hopes to resume testing the AirTrain light rail system at Kennedy Airport this week after concluding that the September crash that killed a Springfield Gardens man was caused by miscommunications during a test run.

A PA investigation found the Sept. 27 accident was the result of unclear instructions on a power-consumption test from the Bombardier testing supervisor to Kelvin DeBourgh, the 23-year-old train operator who was killed, according to a report issued by the PA Tuesday.

DeBourgh, who was only trained to operate the vehicle below 15 mph, was apparently unclear on the speed restrictions and stopping point required by the test, which was designed to test power flow from the circuit breakers to the train, said Anthony Cracchiolo, director of capital programs for the PA. DeBourgh, employed by train manufacturer and operator Bombardier, was killed when his car took a curve at more than double the speed limit, sending some 16,000 pounds of unsecured ballast weight sliding over and crushing him, he said.

“We believe the mistake was not the operator’s,” Cracchiolo said. “The operator didn’t have the proper training.”

Bombardier spokesman Sam Ostrow said the Quebec-based transportation giant “accepts the report.”

The AirTrain light rail system, the $1.9 billion project to connect Kennedy Airport to dozens of subway, bus and Long Island Rail Road lines in Howard Beach and downtown Jamaica, was scheduled to begin runs to Howard Beach by the end of last year and to Jamaica this spring, but those plans were suspended after the accident.

Testing was slated to resume on the unmanned cars as early as Wednesday, and the PA hopes to begin passenger service at $5 a ride by the end of this year, Cracchiolo said.

On the day of the accident, Bombardier was testing the AirTrain’s power consumption to ensure the system would have enough power at its highest usage, the report said. The test required two four-car trains to run full speed — close to 60 mph — in opposite directions to simulate trains leaving the stations, but a braking problem on the four-car trains forced Bombardier to use three-car vehicles, with two of the three cars loaded with concrete blocks to simulate the weight of the fourth car, according to the report.

The automatic pilot feature on the trains was disabled, leaving the cars in manual mode, and Bombardier also disabled the speed governor, which is designed to restrict the top driving speed of the train in manual to 15 mph, Cracchiolo said.

The test was run on the straight-away between the Howard Beach terminal and Federal Circle, and DeBourgh was told to stop about 1,500 feet before the accident site, but due to a miscommunication he did not stop the car, Cracchiolo said.

“He was told to stop at a certain location, but he apparently didn’t realize he had gone beyond the marker,” Cracchiolo said. “It would have been safe even if it was at a higher speed because it was on a straight-away.”

Instead, DeBourgh took the curve, which was rated for 25 mph travel, at about 55 mph, Cracchiolo said. The train’s automatic braking system stopped the vehicle when it hit the concrete noise wall, but the sudden stop sent the concrete blocks sliding forward, crushing DeBourgh from the waist down, according to the PA report.

The Port Authority is still investigating the use of unsecured weights, a common practice within the transportation industry, Cracchiolo said.

“We are recommending the industry review the use of blocks,” he said. “If there is testing proposed with blocks, we will review that proposal very carefully.”

The PA has also made recommendations to Bombardier to improve its testing, training and communications procedures, which Bombardier has agreed to implement, Ostrow said.

Despite the crash, the AirTrain system will be safe for passenger travel, Cracchiolo said. In case of an emergency, the central operator will be able to move the car remotely to the next station, send a rescue car out to the train, or evacuate the car using a walkway that runs along the guiderail, he said. Trains are also equipped with a silent alarm system and an intercom to call for help.

“We believe this is one of the safest systems in the world, if not the safest,” Cracchiolo said. Here we have a situation where there are fail-safes in the computer system that, if anything goes work, the failsafes will stop the train completely.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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