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Questions linger after train fatality

Several Metro-North fatalities have been unsolved for over a decade

Kevin Murphy’s family wants answers. They have declined to comment on the investigation into the death of Mr. Murphy, who was struck and killed by a Metro-North train one early Monday morning, but they continue to have hope that someone will come forward and offer an answer to what could likely be the most difficult question they will ever face.

Metro-North officials offered no estimated time frame for concluding its investigation. Spokesman Aaron Donovan has said it could be “lengthy,” but added the details of Mr. Murphy’s death were not any more complicated than a “normal investigation.”

However, the tragic death at Noroton Heights — which was the first ever at that station, and fourth overall in Darien — could remain a mystery for some time, according to fatality information provided by Metro-North to the Darien Times. Since Metro-North formed in 1983, there have been 135 recorded fatalities — nine of which remain unsolved. Four of those have remained unsolved longer than five years, and at least one going back as far as 2001.

There were 38 additional fatalities, but those happened before the railway implemented a category system, which notes whether the death was a suicide, accidental or unknown. Either two or three of those uncategorized deaths could also be of unknown cause, assuming the percentage (6.7%) is consistent with the recent figures.

Spokesman Donovan said he expects these investigations will all eventually be categorized. This means some investigations could take longer than five years to complete.

The last train fatality in Darien happened at the Darien train station in October of 2002, when 52-year-old Stephen Lee of Danbury committed suicide by train. Several witnesses, including the conductor, watched Lee jump to his death, according to the investigation report.

But unavailable witnesses to train fatalities are also not a rarity, Donovan said.

“I don’t have a specific breakdown,” he said, “but it is fairly common because fatalities can occur during less busy off-peak times when fewer people are using our facilities, or in between stations.”

Metro-North reported having at least one witness to Mr. Murphy’s death from the train crew, but it’s unclear if that person saw anything that would conclude the investigation. One person on the platform at the time told sources he did not see anything.

Speculations have indicated that Mr. Murphy slipped after he dropped his cell phone or that he jumped off the platform to retrieve it, although Metro-North has not commented.

Of the 135 fatalities that have been categorized, 53 were deemed accidents and 73 suicides. Two in Darien were deemed suicides, and one was before categorization. Metro-North closed its investigation into the 2002 suicide within a week, although it initially reported false information claiming the man jumped as the train was leaving the station, when he had jumped as it arrived.

Jim Cameron, chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, told the Darien Times that he doesn’t believe Mr. Murphy committed suicide.

“It sounds like he, for whatever reason, was already on the track when the train approached,” Cameron said, citing “anecdotal evidence.”

Cameron added that the slight curve on the railroad tracks at Noroton Heights might have prevented Mr. Murphy from hearing or seeing the train approach.

“Metro-North trains are very quiet while operating,” Cameron said, adding that trains are supposed to announce their approach by blasting a horn. It’s unclear if the “incident train,” which was running express from Westport to Stamford when it struck Mr. Murphy just after 6:30 a.m., blasted its horn upon arrival.

Safety

Metro-North provides quarterly customer safety messages and offers a customer safety section in its Mileposts publication and website, Donovan said. However, stations do not provide any signs that indicate the best thing to do should a person fall off a track. Donovan said Metro-North is not planning on adding any signs either.

“In addition to the public education efforts, Metro-North employees continually audit station conditions and respond to reports of unsafe conditions,” Donovan said. “Crews are continually performing enhancements…”

When asked if express trains could run on the inside tracks to avoid running at full speed next to the platform, Donovan said that would not be possible.

“We appreciate the suggestion, but it wouldn’t be feasible without reducing service or inviting recurring delays,” Donovan said. “Making matters more difficult, express tracks are subject to closure for maintenance.”

Cameron agreed.

“The idea of moving non-stopping trains to an inside track is infeasible,” Cameron said. “Traffic is such that they need all four tracks to operate the number of trains at rush hour.”

Awareness

Given the high number of deaths that are the result of suicides, the Darien Times inquired about grief programs for Metro-North employees who witness these incidents.

“Through our Employee Assistance Program, Metro-North employees have the support of our counselors who are available to assess the needs of our employees following any critical incident and provide any necessary assistance,” Donovan said.

When asked about partnering with mental health organizations for an educational campaign to try and curb suicides, Donovan requested to speak off the record. He did, however, add the following: “We ask all our customers to remain vigilant for those who seem like they may be in need of assistance and notify authorities if necessary.”

Cameron said he doubts “there is much that can be done to stop suicides.”

Rail travel

After the Long Island Railroad, Metro-North is the most heavily traveled commuter line in the United States, handling more than 80 million passengers annually. It also one of the safest of the major commuter lines, according to data from the federal Department of Transportation.

Metro-North has the third-lowest number of fatalities of the top 10 most traveled commuter lines, according to the department, averaging five annual deaths by train since 2003.

Total accidents/incidents have decreased by 53.2% since 2003, according to the department, and all while ridership has increased by 14% during the same period. Over the past 10 years, fatalities peaked in 2007 on Metro-North with nine. The Long Island Railroad had 12 that same year, also a decade-high, and transports a few hundred thousand more passengers annually than Metro-North.

The New Jersey Transit system, the third largest in the nation, had more fatalities each year over the last decade than Metro-North’s worst year, averaging almost 13 per year and yet carrying about 10 million fewer passengers than Metro-North annually.

Chicago’s Metra, the fourth largest, averaged 8.7 fatalities per year over the last 10 years, and yet had half the annual ridership of Metro-North. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority averaged 6.8 deaths per year and also carries about half the passengers as Metro-North.

The most dangerous line in the United States is the Metrolink in California, according to transportation department data. This line travels between San Diego and Los Angeles and up past Santa Barbara. It services about 11 million people annually, but averages more than 10 fatalities a year. In 2008, 30 people died by train — the highest number of any commuter rail for the past decade.

While statistics paint a picture of context for those who commute via rail, it does little for those who have lost a loved one in a train accident.

The MTA is asking anyone with information on the death of Kevin Murphy, husband and father of five, to call the MTA Police Department’s communication center at 718-361-2207 and ask for the on-call detective supervisor. The line is open 24 hours a day.

ddesroches@darientimes.com

 

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  • John

    I was talking to a town employee and he had heard that someone has spilled a little water and it froze on the platform. This was the day after the accident. Last week, I activated my sprinkler system and it inadvertently went on at 5am, just for an instant. I was walking on the flagstone at 6am and literally tumbled into my pool by accident. The little bit of water was completely frozen.Thankfully, the pool had water in it. I instantly thought of this man going to work at 5:30am and how it must have happened. I don’t know the man, yet using the word suicide in this article is out of the question. dobber140@hotmail.com

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