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Feds order major Metro-North safety changes after deadly crash

A Metro-North passenger train lays on it's side after derailing in the Bronx borough of New York, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013.Mark Lennihan / AP

Federal officials on Friday ordered New York's Metro-North commuter railroad to make major safety improvements — starting with two crew members at the controls in some places — to prevent a repeat of the high-speed derailment that killed four people and injured 63 over the weekend.

The emergency order from the Federal Railroad Administration requires Metro-North to modify its signal system so that it will automatically slow down a train if the engineer fails to do so in spots where there is a dramatic speed change.

Until that happens, two qualified crew members must be in place to operate trains on tracks where the speed limit changes by more than 20 mph.

Sunday's accident happened on a sharp curve in the Bronx where the speed limit switches from 70 mph to 30 mph. The train was going 82 mph as it approached the Spuyten Duyvil station, officials said.

The engineer, William Rockefeller, was alone in the control cab at the time. He told investigators he simply zoned out and came out of "a daze" too late to slow down, his lawyer said.

His cab was equipped with a dead man's pedal that is supposed to stop the train in the event that the engineer is incapacitated and takes his foot off it. Metro-North also has a system to automatically halt a train if the engineer blows a red signal, but it doesn't apply to speed changes.

“Safety is our highest priority, and we must do everything we can to learn from this tragic crash and help prevent future derailments,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement accompanying the order.

 “While we assist the National Transportation Safety Board in carrying out its investigation, this Emergency Order will help ensure that other Metro-North trains travel at appropriate, safe speeds.”

Slideshow: Pictures of the Metro-North crash

Metro-North is the nation's largest commuter rail system, with 775 miles of track in New York and Connecticut and more than 80 million riders annually. The weekend derailment was its fifth major safety incident since May, when a train jumped the tracks in Connecticut, injuring 72 people.

"FRA has significant concerns with regard to the railroad's compliance with federal railroad safety regulations and the railroad's own operating rules," the order says.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North, said in a statement that it would comply with the order but did not say how it would modify the signal system.

"We are examining many other possible steps we can take to improve the safety of our railroad operations, and will continue making every effort to enhance customer and employee safety," the MTA said.

Congress has ordered railroads nationwide to install a system known as positive train control, which uses computer and satellite tracking to minimize human error. It's supposed to be in place for most of the country’s passenger and freight rail network by the end of 2015, but it's behind schedule most places.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday he wants to speed up the installation of the system.

The focus on safety came as two victims of the derailment were laid to rest: Jim Lovell, 58, an audio technician who did work for TODAY and other NBC programs, and Donna Smith, 54, a paralegal.

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