I-Team: Near Collision Cover-Up

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An I-Team investigation into your safety has uncovered details of a near collision between two commuter trains that those involved wanted to hush up.

You might remember the commuter train crash in Los Angeles in September, 2008, when an engineer missed a stop signal and collided with a freight train, killing 25 people.

In wake of that tragedy, the I-Team has uncovered details of a near collision of two commuter trains right here in South Florida.

It happened in October.  But the I-Team discovered that the near accident was covered up for weeks.

Click here for the unedited surveillance video from the Tri-rail Train

Few people, outside those actually on the trains involved, knew about the incident until I-Team Investigator Stephen Stock started asking questions.

I-Team Links
Read the SFRTA memo about the incident
Read the Joint Investigation Report

For many passengers on the regular 5:30pm Tri-Rail train pulling out of West Palm Beach, it seemed like any other day on the commuter train.

“All of a sudden, the train slows down, came to a stop,” said regular Tri-Rail passenger Jerry Cellura, who said he was on that particular train but didn’t realize it almost hit another train.

But even for some regular riders, that sudden stop seemed, to them, normal.

“I remember the train stopped for maybe 10 (or) 15 minutes, but to me it’s a normal situation because we stop all the time,” said college student James Clervil, who said he also was on that particular train. Clervil said he regularly rides the Tri-Rail train to travel to and from his classes.

But the CBS4 I-Team has learned that what happened only a mile north of the West Palm Beach stop was anything but normal.

I-Team Links
Read the SFRTA memo about the incident
Read the Joint Investigation Report

“People were told to come back,” Jerry Cellura said.

In other words, the I-Team learned that people were told to go to the back of the train because engineers were preparing the passengers for the possibility of a massive head-on collision with an on-coming southbound Amtrak train.

The Amtrak train had apparently missed a turn and was on the same track as the northbound Tri-Rail train.

“That happens frequently on the train, as far as they’ll stop or slow down,” said regular train passenger Dorothy McManus.

I-Team Investigator Stephen Stock asked,”But never slamming on the brake?”

“No, no,” McManus said. “This definitely, this was brake slamming.”

The exact spot where it happened is at railroad mile marker 968.7 near where the railroad crossed 15th Street near Windsor and North Tamarind Avenue, next to the Roosevelt Full Service Center run by Palm Beach County Schools. The tracks also run through a populated neighborhood of West Palm Beach.

According to an internal three-page memo sent to the board of directors of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, owners of Tri-Rail, and first obtained by the CBS4 I-Team, the southbound Amtrak train had “proceeded beyond the point where it was supposed to stop…” That action forced the Tri-Rail to take “emergency action to stop the train.”

I-Team Links
Read the SFRTA memo about the incident
Read the Joint Investigation Report

“We were riding northbound and we slammed on the brakes and it sounded like a tire exploding,” Dorothy McManus told the I-Team as she recalled events that day.

Only at the last minute, according to the memo, was Tri-Rail able to “move onto the other track”…avoiding a collision.

Dorothy McManus remembers the incident well.

“And then they announced they’re sorry that they had to put on the emergency brake system to avoid a collision,” McManus said.

All evidence shows the two trains came within about 140 feet of colliding with each other.

I-Team Links
Read the SFRTA memo about the incident
Read the Joint Investigation Report

“100 feet?” James Clervil asked the I-Team. “That’s too close to me.”

“I ride the train because it’s supposed to be safe, save money on gas,” Clervil told the I-Team. “But if I’m missing (other) trains by 100 feet, I don’t think I want to ride, any further at least.”

What’s worse, the CBS4 I-Team has learned that there was an attempt by those directly involved to cover up the entire incident.

The near collision happened on October 20, 2008. But the evidence collected by the I-Team, including that internal memo, shows that no one in authority found out about the incident until at least November 4, 2008.

The internal memo continues “Contrary to applicable rules, neither the Amtrak crew nor the crew operating the (Tri Rail) train made any report of the incident.”

Neither did dispatchers.

Neither did anyone else.

No passenger, no worker, no one apparently reported the near collision.

With one exception. A paralegal with Florida’s Department of Transportation District IV office, who was a passenger on the northbound Tri-Rail train apparently told her superiors in an e-mail about the incident.

When Florida Department of Transportation officials began looking into the claims by its paralegal, officials discovered the train number and the exact time it happened. After DOT reported this information to South Florida’s Regional Transportation Authority, Tri-Rail’s owner began its investigation.

SFRTA investigators discovered a security camera tape that confirmed what had happened. SFRTA also immediately barred the Tri-Rail crew that had been on board but not reported the incident from operating on its commuter rail system until the completion of the investigation.

I-Team Links
Read the SFRTA memo about the incident
Read the Joint Investigation Report

According to the internal memo, the Amtrak crew has also been barred from operating trains on the same track.

You can read the entire memo by clicking here.

The Federal Railroad Administration was called in and began its own investigation.

No official will comment on this story since it is still under investigation and is potentially so serious.

Amtrak released a statement that says quote “we take this incident very seriously.”

National Railroad officials say they hope to finish its investigation early next year.
(© MMX, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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