Exclusive: New details on third rail involved in Metro-North crash

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Investigative reporter Jim Hoffer takes a closer look at how the electrified third rail pushed into the Metro-North train. (WABC)

The NTSB says that one of the main questions in the Metro-North crash is what made this collision between a car and a much bigger train so deadly to the rail passengers.

Rarely in these crossing-grade accidents do people in the train die.

But one insider says there's something different about Metro North's rail system that can make crashes like this deadlier.

Metro North's third rail system is like no other in the nation. Trains collect power from the bottom of the third rail rather than the top.

At each grade crossing, the end of the third rail must be angled slightly upward to catch the train shield as it rolls through the crossing.

One rail electrician who fears retribution if identified worked on the power system. He said when the train hit the car, the vehicle plowed into the upturned end of the third rail, prying it free and sending it into the first and second cars of the train.

"When it got caught under the third rail it started lifting it up from its anchoring system like a crowbar," he said. ('Then it just broke apart', we said.) "Yes, it peeled it and locked it a higher elevation which probably pushed it through the car," he said.

400 feet of third rail according to the NTSB, most ending up in the third car. The pieces are visible in pictures, the fire damage so severe to suggest part of the third rail remained charred.

"It will burn its way through the steel of the train and go through the floorboard or the panels of the train," the electrician said.

Two years ago an LIRR work train struck a vehicle at a crossing, killing the driver and passenger. But damage to the train was moderate because the third rail system stayed mostly intact.

Not so Tuesday night.

The stark difference in damage and deaths will bring intense scrutiny to Metro North's unique third rail system. ('That's what made this perhaps deadlier,' we said.) "Yes, due to the design on Metro North's third rail traction power system," the electrician said.

The NTSB confirmed the design of the third-rail will be part of their investigation:

Meantime a federal inspector tells Eyewitness News that Metro North's unique third-rail system could be more prone to coming a part in accidents, but he adds that this kind of system is safer for rail workers and more reliable in bad weather.

The MTA says it could NOT comment because of the investigation.

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metro northtrain crashmetro north accidentinvestigatorsinvestigation
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