By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest
Each day, hundreds of thousands of Americans board urban transit systems and interstate trains, confident that they will reach their destination safely and usually on time. But four recent train accidents – two of them involving fatalities – have given the traveling public some cause for concern.
On December 18, 2017, an inaugural run on a new Amtrak line in Washington State turned deadly. The train, which was going 80 mph in a 30 mph zone, derailed outside Tacoma and several cars fell from a highway overpass. Three people were killed.
On January 3, 2018, three cars derailed in Savannah, Georgia, on an Amtrak train traveling from Miami to New York. The Silver Meteor was backing slowly into the station about 10 p.m. when two sleeper cars and a baggage car derailed. No one was injured.
On February 4, 2018, an Amtrak train travelling from New York to Miami with 139 passengers collided with a parked CSX freight train near Columbia, South Carolina, just after 2:30 a.m. Two Amtrak employees were killed and at least 100 passengers were injured.
On February 6, 2018, two cars on an Amtrak Acela train uncoupled while traveling at a high speed from Washington, D.C., to New York at 6:40 a.m. The train was carrying 52 passengers who were transferred to another train. No injuries were reported.
Law Firm Says Train Accidents Increasing Nationwide
Train accidents have been increasing since 1997, according to the McAleer law firm, which litigates public transportation and vehicle accidents.
Each year, nearly 1,000 people are killed in train-related accidents. Most train/car crashes occur at railroad crossings, killing 600 people and injuring about 2,300 others annually.
Additionally, almost every two weeks, a train derailment leads to a chemical spill. “Some of these spills are so serious that they require the evacuation of local residents,” McAleer says.
Rail Safety Is at an All-Time High, Says Rail Association
The American Association of Railroads (AAR) refutes the train accident statistics. This freight rail trade group says rail safety is at an all-time high.
The freight train derailment rate on the country’s nearly 140,000-mile mainline network reached an all-time low in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available. In addition, fewer than 1% of all derailments that year involved crude oil. The AAR offers the following statistics:
- 99% of all tank cars containing crude oil arrive at their destination safely.
- The train accident rate in 2016 was down 42% from 2000.
- Equipment-caused accidents in 2016 were down 34% from 2000.
- Track-caused accidents in 2016 were down 52% from 2000.
- Derailments in 2016 were down 43% from 2000.
Also, freight railroads have spent more than $635 billion on infrastructure and equipment over the past 30 years to maintain and modernize the nation’s rail network, much of which is shared with passenger railroads like Amtrak. That’s an average of about $27 billion a year over the past several years, the AAR calculated.
Train Accident Prevention Technology Needs Upgrading
McAleer says rail companies are relying on technology that was developed more than 70 years ago. There has been very little research and improvement to update outdated safety measures. In addition, local governments often have no say in the train traffic in their area, which often results in delays for emergency responders to reach the scene of an incident.
One critical area where accidents have declined is at grade crossings, the Federal Railroad Administration reports. Fatalities and injuries decreased by almost 40 percent from 2001 to 2011.
But many railroad crossings still do not have adequate warning devices. While vehicle-on-train collisions have decreased, pedestrians involved in train collisions have increased. That may be the impetus for instructional public safety announcements aimed at drivers and pedestrians.
However, in this age of rapidly advancing technology and big data analytics, the rail industry seems stuck on the local tracks when it comes to innovation.
The train that derailed near Tacoma, Washington, was traveling on track that had just undergone millions of dollars of improvements and weeks of testing. But a technology known as positive train control (PTC), which automatically slows down and stops a speeding train, was not yet operating.
PTC combines GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or speeding. In a sense, it’s the 21st century equivalent to the old “dead man’s brake,” which would automatically stop the train if the engineer’s foot came off the brake for any reason, such as sudden illness or death.
NTSB Recommended Installation of PTC for Decades
“We have recommended PTC for decades,” National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member Bella Dinh-Zarr told CNN following the Washington State crash. “Unfortunately, the deadline was moved farther into the future, and every year that we wait to implement PTC to its fullest extent means that more people will be killed and injured.”
For PTC to work effectively and prevent rail accidents, both locomotives and tracks must have the system installed.
Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson later told a news conference, “It’s not clear yet from the NTSB whether PTC would have prevented the accident or not. We really must wait for the NTSB to give us that information.”
Congress Ordered Railroads to Adopt PTC in 2015, Some Companies Complied
A head-on collision that killed 25 people near Los Angeles in 2008 prompted Congress to pass a law ordering the nation’s railroads to adopt PTC by December 2015. When the railroads balked at the expense and short time to implement the system, Congress extended the deadline to December 31, 2018, with extensions up to 2020, “if a railroad completes certain statutory requirements that are necessary to obtain an extension.”
By the end of the third quarter in September 2017, Amtrak had equipped 71% of its locomotives and 67% of its owned tracks with PTC, the FRA said. But the slow pace of installation nationally continues.
Only 17 of the 43 freight, rail and commuter service companies in the U.S. were 100% compliant in having PTC-installed locomotives by the end of the third quarter of 2017. Eight rail companies had no PTC installations completed.
So it is highly doubtful that the rail industry can meet the December 31, 2018 cutoff. In that case, Congress will most likely do what it does when confronted with any deadline. The lawmakers just extend it one more time.