AirTrain was near top speed at time of crash: Feds

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The AirTrain that derailed during a test run at Kennedy Airport two weeks ago was being driven manually and near its maximum speed at the time of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board said last week.

Federal investigators looking into the accident, which killed train operator Kelvin DeBourgh, Jr., 23, found that the three-car train was going between 55 mph and 58 mph when it hit a curve outside the terminal area, said Lauren Peduzzi, a spokeswoman for the NTSB.

The AirTrain light-rail system was designed to connect Kennedy Airport travelers to Manhattan via mass transportation lines in Jamaica and Howard Beach. In downtown Jamaica, passengers can transfer to all Long Island Rail Road lines, except the Port Washington branch, the E, J, and Z subway lines, and more than a dozen bus lines. Passengers going to Howard Beach will be able to connect with the A subway line.

DeBourgh was operating the AirTrain during a test run Sept. 27 when his car derailed and he was pinned by the eight 2,000-pound weights that were supposed to simulate a passenger load.

The AirTrain can travel at a maximum speed of about 60 mph, but operational travel speeds were expected to be between 50 mph and 55 mph on straight railways, such as the path from the airport to Jamaica or Howard Beach. In the airport, where the line is more curved, the train was expected to travel between 30 mph and 40 mph.

Investigators with the NTSB were able to determine the AirTrain’s speed at the time of the crash from a recording device that was found on board, Peduzzi said.

The device also helped reveal that DeBourgh was operating the car manually, Peduzzi said. Prior to discovering the recording device, officials had been unclear whether DeBourgh had been driving the AirTrain, which is capable of operating in automatic mode without a human operator. The cars do not have an enclosed cab for an operator, which left DeBourgh exposed to the weights in the car when the train derailed.

Testing on the AirTrain has been suspended indefinitely, said Pasquale DiFulco, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport.

The NTSB’s investigation could take about a year, but the federal agency has not stopped the AirTrain from conducting test runs.

Service around the airport and to Howard Beach was scheduled to start this fall, and service to Jamaica was expected to start in the spring. No new start dates have been announced.

Neither the PA nor Bombardier, the Canadian manufacturer of the AirTrain fleet, had comments on the NTSB’s finding on the speed.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Updated 7:24 pm, October 10, 2011
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