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Previous Metro-North Accidents Have Prompted Demands For Better Safety

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The Metro-North train accident and fire that left seven people dead in Valhalla Tuesday followed a string of incidents that have led to demands for safety improvements on the railroad.

As CBS2's Tracee Carrasco reported, the incident also came one night after the railroad apologized when a New Haven Line train became stuck with no heat or power for more than two hours.

Officials said seven people are dead, and at least 12 more were injured, when the Harlem Line train hit a car on the tracks and caught fire at Commerce Street in Valhalla Tuesday evening.

The Jeep Cherokee was on the tracks at Commerce Street in Valhalla when it was struck by Harlem Line train No. 659 at 7:08 p.m., Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokeswoman Marjorie Anders told WCBS 880. The train had left Grand Central Station at 5:45 p.m.

The gates came down on top of the vehicle, which was stopped on the tracks, the MTA said. The driver got out to look at the rear of the car, got back in, drove forward and became stuck, the MTA said.

The front car of the train and the vehicle both caught fire when the train struck.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the Valhalla accident is more evidence of the need for better safety. "The immediate question is what caused this horrendous, probably preventable incident that reflects further on the need for safety and reliability in this railroad," he said. "Whatever the cause is found out to be, the focus has to be on improving safety and reliability on this railroad."

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), also a frequent critic of Metro-North, released a statement.

"Our hearts go out to those lost, we pray for those injured and our hats are tipped to the brave first responders who came to the scene of this tragic crash so quickly. I have spoken to (MTA President) Tom Prendergast, who has assured me that a full and thorough investigation has already begun," Schumer said in the statement. "At this early stage, it is premature to point any fingers of blame, but there are many important questions that must be answered in the coming days."

Just last week, two derailments on the Metro-North prompted calls for safety improvements from both Schumer and Blumenthal.

One derailment happened around 5:30 p.m. this past Wednesday when a Harlem bound train jumped the tracks as it was pulling out of Track 18 at Grand Central Terminal.

Police and rail workers helped to guide the estimated 800 passengers on board back onto the platform.

Hours after the derailment at Grand Central, an empty train jumped the tracks in a rail yard in White Plains. Metro-North said it was a weather related switch problem, CBS2's Lou Young reported.

Following the incidents, Schumer and Blumenthal issued a letter to Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti, saying the derailments "should be fully investigated and the causes should be immediately addressed."

Schumer disagreed with references to the derailment as 'minor.'

"There is no such thing as a minor derailment," he said, "We need to get to the bottom of this quickly. We don't need Metro-North to paper over it."

In their letter to Giulietti, the senators said they understand that Metro-North "has been working to improve safety across its system," but said "we cannot let any issues go unaddressed and Metro-North must remain vigilant in its pursuit of the highest possible safety standards."

"As Metro-North works to improve its safety culture, addressing and preventing issues like the one that occurred last night is critical," the letter said.

In an unrelated incident on Monday night, a New Haven Line train got stalled just south of Pelham in Westchester County, after icy conditions on the tracks stopped the New Haven Line heading to Harrison.

That incident prompted the railroad to issue an apology.

"We apologize to the customers of Metro-North," said Metropolitan Transportation Authority deputy director of communications Aaron Donovan.

Donovan admitted wrongdoing in the train chaos Monday, after passengers flooded Twitter with stories of being stranded on the freezing cold train.

"We believed we could fix the problem very quickly based on the conditions our folks saw on the train. That obviously turned out not to be the case," Donovan said.

And prior to the latest mishaps, the Federal Railroad Administration mandated safety upgrades on Metro-North trains following four incidents.

The FRA said in a report to Congress in March of last year that Metro-North allowed safety to erode while pushing to keep its trains on time.

On May 17, 2013, an eastbound train derailed in Bridgeport, Conn., and was struck by a westbound train. The accident injured 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor.

Days later on May 28 of that year, track foreman Robert Luden was struck and killed by a passenger train in West Haven, Conn.

Then on July 18, a freight train full of garbage derailed near the site of Sunday's wreck and service was suspended.

On Dec. 1, 2013 four people were killed when a Metro-North Hudson Line train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. An investigation determined it was caused by engineer William Rockefeller's sleepiness and his undiagnosed case of sleep apnea.

Another incident came in March of last year, when a Metro-North electrician was struck and killed at Park Avenue and East 106th Street. The employee, identified as James Romansoff, 58, of Yonkers, reportedly went beyond a protected work zone while restoring power to the section of the track, 1010 WINS' Al Jones reported.

The railroad has since established an investigation unit to look into the causes of accidents, overhauled a system safety plan and improved employee training programs. It also began installation of alerter devices designed to ensure engineers remain responsive.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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