When I was growing up in New York City, taking the subway or el (elevator) train was something all of us did almost daily. We also took the trains from Grand Central Station to visit my aunts, uncles and cousins in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. During the 20+ years I took these trains, I don’t ever remember hearing about a train wreck in the U.S. That was something that seemed to happen in third-world, impoverished nations, like India.
So what’s up with all the train accidents we are hearing about recently?
Recently, a train collision in South Carolina killed two train operators. That’s only one of several train accidents.
Statistically, taking a train is still much safer than traveling by car. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), an estimated 40,000 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2017. When compared to the 828 train-related fatalities in 2017 reported by the Federal Railroad Association, the safety comparison is obvious. Still, that number seems oddly high.
Interestingly, what appears to be an upsurge in train safety issues is not something about which experts agree. Railway civil engineering and safety expert at the University of Delaware, Dr. Allan Zarembski, doesn’t believe the reports on train accidents accurately represents a significant upturn in railway safety issues.
“If you look at the ten-year trends, the recent trends, and the long-term trends, safety is on a consistent improvement basis,” he said. “Do we occasionally have a hiccup where you have a small period of time where you have an upsurge? In some cases, yes. But there doesn’t seem to be something fundamental in the industry.”
Apparently, we are now experiencing a hiccup. We must learn what can be done to prevent as many hiccups as possible.
Causes of recent train accidents
The recent train accident outside of Columbia, S.C. that killed the train engineer and a conductor occurred when an Amtrak train heading to NYC was erroneously switched onto the wrong track colliding with a stationary cargo train. Preliminary reports suggest that a switch was mistakenly left in the wrong position.
A month before, another Amtrak train carrying members of Congress to Virginia collided with a garbage truck on the tracks, killing the truck’s passengers and injuring two others. An investigation concluded that the accident was likely caused by the truck driver, who tried to go around the railroad crossing gates after they were down.
There have also been several derailments in the news. In December 2017, a train making an inaugural trip on a new route between Seattle and Portland derailed, killing three people and injuring 80 others. The cause was excessive speed going around a curve. In September 2016, a New Jersey Transit train approaching the station, failed to slow down and hit the bumper block, causing the train to go over a barrier and through the rail concourse. Investigations showed that the engineer suffered from undiagnosed sleep apnea.
Other recent train crashes were caused by drug use, miscommunication and engineer distraction
Positive train control
The above accounts reveal that there are a number of factors that can cause a train wreck. Trying to prevent all of them is a real challenge. However, there are a number of measures that train safety experts advocate that could reduce the number of such accidents.
Positive train control (PTC), an automatic braking system, can deter speed-related train accidents. It works by embedding transponders in track beds about every two miles and programmed with speed limits for the next stretch of track. When trains pass over the transponders, they calculate the train’s speed. If the train is speeding, they send a signal to the engineer, who has a brief amount of time to respond. If he doesn’t respond within that time period, the PTC system will slow or stop the train.
Once installed (the PTC system was to be installed on all tracks nationwide, but Congress has extended the deadline and no end date is known at this time), it still won’t be able to stop every train accident. The reason is that the system can’t control track- or equipment-caused derailments, which represents 50-60% of all derailments.
What about train accidents caused by human error?
Questions remain as to what can be done about those train accidents caused by human error. The answer is much stricter vetting of those in control of train operations. Some other solutions include:
- Improved communication between railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and train crews
- Screening for drug use and sleep apnea can certainly help prevent train wrecks
- Strict maintenance of the country’s rail infrastructure.
Until all safety measures are put into place, taking the train will still have some risks attached to it. Hopefully, technology, common sense screening and proper maintenance will keep riders much safer in the future.
Group Matrix Blog – March 28, 2018 – by Sharon Bowles