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ENGINEER OF TRAIN THAT RAN STOP SIGNAL HAD A HISTORY OF GROSS SAFETY INFRACTIONS

SHARE ENGINEER OF TRAIN THAT RAN STOP SIGNAL HAD A HISTORY OF GROSS SAFETY INFRACTIONS

The engineer of the train that ran a stop signal before a fatal commuter train crash had been suspended repeatedly for failing to stop and even derailing a train in the past, investigators said Sunday.

John DeCurtis was suspended a total of 105 days for the infractions, said Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. DeCurtis derailed once, ran stop signals twice and missed a station once.DeCurtis also had a color deficiency in his vision, Hall said. He declined to elaborate on how severe the problem was.

Transit officials also defended themselves Sunday against criticism that a split-shift schedule for DeCurtis and other engineers may have contributed to the Friday morning crash.

DeCurtis had worked 14 1/2 hours with only a 4 1/2-hour sleep break. He was on his way back on an extra round-trip at the time of the crash, which killed him, the other engineer and a passenger and injured 162 others.

"Those hours and those split shifts are very common and are practiced throughout all commuter railroads so it's not anything new," said Shirley DeLibero, NJ Transit executive director.

The practice complies with the union contract and Federal Railroad Administration regulations, and it saves the railroad money, she said. Of the 199 NJ Transit engineers, 62 work split shifts.

However, the scheduling system would be changed if the NTSB recommended it, DeLibero said.

Mike Benson, an NTSB spokesman, said the board has set up investigative teams focusing on operation, track, signals, train equipment, human performance and survival factors.

NJ Transit officials said DeCurtis clocked in Thursday at 6:11 p.m. and took a sleep break in a passenger coach car Friday from 12:48 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. He was supposed to get off work about 7:30 a.m., but agreed to make the extra run because of another train delay. The crash happened at 8:40 a.m.

Meanwhile, crews were still working Sunday to fix the railroad tracks at the junction in Secaucus. Damage was estimated at $3.5 million.

The lines were running again, but only on a single track. Transit officials planned to operate on a full schedule Monday with possible delays, spokesman Ken Miller said.

DeCurtis' train, carrying 650 passengers, should have been stopped by a signal until the other train carrying 150 passengers passed, officials said. Instead, it overran the signal by about three car lengths, into the path of the other train.

The tracks that carried the trains were not designed to handle an automatic braking system, DeLibero said. The trains had the device, but it does not function unless the tracks are equipped for it.