Can We Get Serious about Train Safety? Technology Could Reduce 40 Percent of Rail Accidents
by Amanda Starbuck, 10/23/2015
UPDATE (Oct. 23, 2015): Earlier this week was “Back to the Future Day,” the exact day and year that Marty McFly time travels to in the iconic 1980s movie trilogy. The film makers celebrated human innovation by imagining a world where people embraced new technology (some that actually did evolve).
But in the real 2015, we have life-saving technology at our disposal that the railroad industry is refusing to adopt. By December 31, 2015, all railroads carrying passengers or hazardous materials were supposed to adopt Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that responds when conductors fail to observe speed limits or other signals. PTC could have prevented the horrific train derailment in Philadelphia this spring that killed 8 passengers and injured over 200 more.
But more than five years after rules requiring these safeguards were issued by the Federal Railroad Administration, railroad companies have petitioned for an extension, complaining about the high cost of installation. Congress added a three-year extension to adopt PTC to the highway funding bill, which would allow companies to apply for an additional two years to install the technology. Given the industry’s already sluggish pace, it may take at least another five years before PTC is installed on the majority of train routes.
In the meantime, railroad profits have skyrocketed due to the increase in oil-by-rail, meaning the industry clearly has available funding to implement the technology. Simultaneously, fiery oil train derailments have increased, providing even greater urgency to adopt PTC. It’s time for the railroad industry to join the future and adopt technology that will save lives.
Original post from 3-24-2015
Last month, we wrote about the rise in crude oil train accidents and the need to approve federal crude-by-rail safeguards as quickly as possible. These rules, currently under review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, would require thicker walls on oil tankards and impose speed limits on oil trains.
These are vital safeguards that would improve oil train safety. But they don’t address a factor contributing to 40 percent of rail accidents: human error.
Just as distracted driving can cause road collisions, trains can collide or derail when engineers fail to respond to signals. In 2008, a commuter train collided with a freight train in Chatworth, California, killing 25 people, injuring 102 more, and causing over $12 million in damage. The cause? The commuter train’s engineer was texting on his phone and failed to notice a stop signal at a control point.
We can’t completely eliminate human error, but we can use technology that responds when signals are missed. Positive Train Control (PTC) systems track the movement of trains using GPS. They sense when a train does not respond to speed limits or other signals and reacts by slowing or stopping the train.
PTC can’t replace a skilled engineer who can respond quickly to changing situations. But it can intervene when an engineer nods off or otherwise fails to react. PTC is already being used in the Northeast Corridor and on some European rail lines.
After the 2008 Chatsworth collision, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required that PTC be adopted for all rail lines with passenger service or freight trains carrying hazardous materials and gave rail companies until the end of 2015 to implement the technology.
Just nine months from the deadline, the railroad industry is begging for more time.
The Association of American Railroads (the railroad industry’s lobbying arm) says that the industry has already spent $5 billion dollars to invest in PTC. They claim they need an additional $10 billion in order to meet the 2008 bill’s requirements – and that they cannot accomplish this before the year’s end. Congress has responded with a bill that would extend the deadline for adopting PTC to 2020.
But each year of delay increases the number of preventable train fatalities.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated 25 accidents since 2004 that could have been prevented with PTC. These accidents claimed 65 lives and over 1,100 injuries and cost millions of dollars in damages. The National Transportation Safety Board is opposed to offering any extensions. (They have, after all, been advocating for PTC since 1970.)
Adopting PTC systems will do more than simply reduce engineer error; it can speed other improvements in rail safety. PTC systems can trigger automatic warning devices at railroad crossings, making this technology available to more communities. Currently, only one-half of all at-grade railroad crossings in the U.S. have automatic warning devices, and only a third have gates and flashing lights. More warning devices can lead to fewer cars and pedestrians being struck by trains. In 2014 alone, 267 people were killed at railroad crossings.
We cannot afford to delay the implementation of PTC and other safeguards.
Railroad companies have the resources, thanks to their profits from the fracking boom. Crude-by-rail transport has increased 4,100 percent since 2008. Trains also haul sand and other materials used in fracking. In fact, the top seven companies alone reported earning over 66 billion dollars in profits in the six years since the new safety standards were passed. It seems there are plenty of resources for that extra $10 billion the American Association of Railroads says is needed to fully install PTC systems.
Since railroads are moving increasing amounts of more hazardous materials through highly populated American communities, it’s essential that they expedite their investment in PTC and other safety technologies. The industry will spend $29 billion dollars this year on capital expansion, but only a portion of this is earmarked for PTC. BNSF Railway only committed three percent of its total investment expenditures to PTC, by way of example.
PTC and other safeguards should be a top priority for rail companies – not an afterthought.
Railroad companies have the means to invest in PTC. The American people cannot afford to wait another five years for life-saving technology. Instead of allowing further delays, let’s start fining rail companies that fail to follow the law. That would send a strong message that in America, we put people before profits.