WASHINGTON -- Metro-North Railroad track inspectors checking the New Haven line May 15 described weak ballast, erosion, problems with ties, unstable rails and loose embankments on the line where two passenger trains crashed in Bridgeport two days later, injuring 76 people.
Federal accident investigators are focused on track failure as the cause of the May 17 derailment of an eastbound Metro-North train, which had just left the Fairfield Metro station, that was hit by a westbound train 20 seconds later.
One of the defects in the inspectors' report was: "Track 4, Catenary 734 insulated joint, hanging ties, pumping under load," referring to vertical movement of the track when a train passed over it. This was at the site of the derailment May 17.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., presiding at a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, said the inspectors' report "shows many defects on that stretch, any one of which could have caused a derailment.''
The handwritten report from the Metro-North inspectors riding a "hi-rail'' vehicle and visually checking the four tracks added up to a "searing indictment'' of track quality in the area, Blumenthal said.
Metro-North officials have said the roadbed flaws noted by the two inspectors were not violations of standards set by the Federal Railroad Administration. However, Blumenthal said the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the accident might find that the standards were, in fact, violated.
The inspectors' report said they took immediate action to correct one "FRA defect,'' a cracked joint bar used to connect two sections of rail.
After the derailment and crash, sections of rail were removed and shipped to the NTSB materials laboratory in Washington for further examination.
The Friday evening rush-hour crash led to a five-day suspension of Amtrak service between New York and Boston.
Metro-North issued a statement late Wednesday that described the May 15 inspection report covering a 30-mile section of track as having been "completed in accordance with FRA maintenance and inspection guidelines.''
The statement said the FRA defect that was fixed by the inspectors was 2½ miles from the site of the derailment and unrelated to the accident.
On the "pumping" track movement noted by the inspectors, Metro-North said FRA rules require that track inspectors take note "of ANY deviations to the basic track structure.
"Vertical movement is governed under FRA standards and the allowable limits depend on a variety of factors. Track inspectors are trained in these factors and have the experience to make these determinations," the statement said. "On May 15, the track inspectors for that area found this `pumping' to be within the allowable range, meaning it did not require immediate, emergency repairs.''
Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the NTSB and a witness at the Senate hearing, saluted the engineer on the westbound train for taking emergency action to stop his train when he saw the derailed train tilting onto his track.
"He saved many lives,'' Hersman said, because he was able to slow the train's speed from 70 mph to 23 mph.
James P. Redeker, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, told the hearing that investment levels in the Northeast Corridor -- the rail system between Washington and Boston -- "fall far short of the levels needed to address repair backlogs and meet future needs.''
Redeker noted that a 2010 financial analysis estimated that the corridor needs some $2.6 billion a year to achieve "state of good repair.''
The repair backlog in Connecticut that needs to be addressed in the near term includes "catenary replacement, four major moveable bridges between Greenwich and New Haven, as well as numerous fixed bridges on the line,'' Redeker said. A critical priority is replacing the signal system, he added.
Redeker said the state owns the rails from the Greenwich-New York border to New Haven, but added that Connecticut law "requires all the users of rail systems pay an allocated fair share" of maintenance costs.
The NTSB is not expected to issue a final "probable cause" finding on the Bridgeport accident until next year.
In its investigation, the board has collected photos, video, reports and records, and other evidence; completed mechanical inspections of the rail cars, the track and signal system; interviewed several Metro-North employees, witnesses and first responders; and documented the accident site.