Home Emergency Management News Can US Train Travel Be Made Safe Again?

Can US Train Travel Be Made Safe Again?

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By David E. Hubler
Contributor EDM Digest

The recent train derailment in Washington State that left three persons dead and about 100 injured was the latest in a string of rail accidents that have the travelling public increasingly concerned about rail safety.

Amtrak’s Cascades passenger train 501 derailed during its first public run on a newly built $181-million segment of track known as the Point Defiance Bypass. The Cascades was traveling 80 mph in a 30-mph zone, according to the National Transportation Board.

In addition, the positive train control (PTC) system, a safety technology that can automatically slow down a speeding train without human intervention, was not in operation.

The Washington State Department of Transportation promptly issued a public statement, which explained how the accident investigation would proceed and the organizations that would be involved. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this event and their families,” the WSDOT statement said.

Amtrak Co-CEO Richard Anderson said, "It's not acceptable that we are involved in these kinds of accidents. We are terribly sorry to the people that are involved."

Unfortunately, Amtrak has been "involved in these kinds of accidents" before.

On September, 22, 1993, the deadliest crash in Amtrak history occurred in Chickasaw, Alabama. More than 40 people were killed when part of an Amtrak train hurtled off a 12-foot-high trestle that had just been struck by a line of barges on the Mobile River. “The train fell into a bayou and caught fire, trapping sleeping passengers in black water up to 30 feet deep," the

Other major train accidents include:

April 18, 2002 An Amtrak train carrying 446 people derailed on a left-hand curve of a CSX-owned track near Crescent City, Florida. Twenty-one of the train's 40 cars slid off the rails. Four persons were killed; 142 injured, including 36 seriously.

January 26, 2005, a Metrolink commuter train in Glendale, California, struck an unoccupied vehicle parked on the tracks. The southbound train derailed, struck a northbound Metrolink train and crashed into a Union Pacific train. 11 persons were killed.

September 12, 2008, a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train collided head-on in Chatsworth, California. Twenty-five people were killed and 135 others were injured. The NTSB determined that the Metrolink engineer, who was among the dead, was texting and failed to stop the train at a red signal.

June 22, 2009, A DC Metro train struck the rear of another train during rush hour, telescoping the rear car of the front train. The automatic control system failed to detect the front train. Nine commuters on the rear train were killed. The NTSB said the crash would have been avoided had Washington Metro properly tested its system. (Since then all Metro trains are operated by an engineer.)

June 24, 2011, A commercial truck struck an Amtrak passenger train at a crossing in Churchill County, Nevada, killing the truck driver, the train conductor and four passengers. The NTSB said the truck driver was inattentive and failed to notice the crossing signals when he was nearly a half-mile away. He didn't start braking until his truck was 300 feet from the crossing. The NTSB also found that nine of the truck's 16 brakes were out of adjustment or inoperative.

December 1, 2013, A Metro North commuter train heading from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, derailed at a left-hand curve. The lead car came to rest inches from the intersection of the Hudson and Harlem rivers. The NTSB determined that the train was traveling at 82 mph in a 30-mph zone because the engineer had fallen asleep "due to undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea exacerbated by a recent circadian rhythm shift required by his work schedule."

February 3, 2015, A Metro-North commuter train struck an SUV at a crossing in Valhalla, New York, during evening rush hour. Witnesses said the SUV was stopped in the crossing when the crossing gates came down, striking the rear of the SUV. The driver got out, looked at the back of the SUV, re-entered the vehicle, drove forward and was struck by the train. The train engineer applied emergency brakes, but the train, traveling just under a 60-mph limit, did not stop in time. Five train passengers and the SUV driver were killed.

May 12, 2015, An Amtrak train, heading to New York from Washington, D.C., with 238 passengers and five crew members, derailed as it approached a curve. The NTSB determined the train's engineer was distracted by radio chatter from other train operators. His train approached the curve at 106 mph where the suggested speed was 50 mph. Eight people died and more than 200 were injured.

Speed Is a Major Cause of Rail and Road Accidents

“Speed is a major cause of automobile and truck accidents on highways. It stands to reason it could happen to trains,” said Oliver Hedgepeth, a professor of Transportation and Logistics Management at American Military University (AMU) and a frequent contributor to EDM Digest.

The Cascade rail accident appears to have been caused by a combination of human and machine error. “It could be 80% machine and 20% human or 95% human and 5% machine. The sharing of the percentage of blame will have to wait for a thorough analysis to be conducted,” Hedgepeth said.

“The Washington State accident may indeed be one of the last to happen on the rail mode of transport because of all these smart technologies growing around the train transport system,” he said.

Why Was the Train Traveling at 80 MPH in a 30-MPH Zone?

Accident experts met on December 19 to look into why the train was traveling 80 mph in a 30-mph zone on a newly opened $181-million segment of track south of Seattle.

The new 14.5-mile bypass, developed by the local government agency Sound Transit, was built to allow trains to travel at faster speeds by avoiding the cargo traffic on the old route. The bypass was not yet equipped with a PTC system, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The NTSB says positive train control technology could have prevented 145 of the rail accidents it has investigated since 1969; those accidents killed 288 people and injured 6,574.

PTC systems have been available since the 1990s. Here’s how PTC works:

  1. Before a trip, data about speed limits, the track, construction zones, locations of other trains and additional information are loaded wirelessly into the system.
  2. While travelling, the train’s position and speed are tracked via GPS. Signal status, broken rails and curves are uploaded from PTC devices located along the track bed. The system tells the engineer when to adjust the speed of the train.
  3. If the engineer doesn’t act, the system takes over, adjusting the speed of the train and, if necessary, bringing it to a stop.

“Why they didn’t have positive train control is a question in my mind,” Michael McGinley, a railroad safety expert and track engineer, told the Times. “Why wouldn’t they build a new system with the latest technology?”

US Railroads and Government Regulators Have Been Slow to Implement the Complex PTC System

According to McGinley and other rail transportation experts, the answer is that U.S. railroads and government regulators have been slow to implement the complex system. That has left the majority of trains unprotected. (Metrolink installed a PTC system after the 2008 Chatsworth, California, train disaster, which was caused by an engineer texting.)

In addition, the freight railroad industry fought the regulations, arguing that they were too costly and not economical.

Congress originally gave the nation’s freight and passenger rail system until 2015 to install PTC systems on all lines. The law was prompted by the September 12, 2008, Metrolink commuter rail crash in California that killed 25 persons and injured 135 others.

But after rail officials complained about the technical challenges of implementing the system and suppliers said they could not meet the deadline to design and produce the custom systems, the deadline was extended to the end of 2018. That deadline has since been extended to the end of 2020.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the company is working to install the complex electronic system, having outfitted the majority of the equipment on its tracks and trains. But he told the LA Times that he does not expect the automatic system to be operational until the second quarter of 2018.

Whether Sound Transit meets its projected completion date remains to be seen. But a bigger question is will Congress again be forced to extend the deadline for installation of the PTC system across America’s 233,000 miles of railroad track? And if the 2020 deadline is pushed forward once again, how many more fatal rail accidents will we witness?

David Hubler David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at APUS. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. In March 2017, Rowman & Littlefield published the paperback edition of David’s latest book, "The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation's Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever."