Questions around rail safety and calls for the implementation of new technology are arising in the aftermath of the Bronx, New York train derailment.
Sunday’s accident—which occurred on the Hudson line very close to the river’s edge—took the lives of four people and injured many others.
The train was not full to capacity at the time of the derailment, but on regular weekdays it can carry upward of 18,000 commuters.
Investigators have yet to determine an official cause of the accident, but it’s possible that human error—which accounts for 40 percent of all train accidents worldwide—could have been a factor.
Initial reports indicate that the train was speeding at 82 miles per hour as it approached a sharp curve in the track. The train engineer stated that he applied the brakes but was unable to slow the train down sufficiently before it took the bend.
In light of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is renewing its push to make “positive train control” or PTC technology mandatory on trains in order to help protect against excessive speeds and human error.
PTC technology—an example of the sweeping industrial trend toward smart, connected products—combines GPS, track-side devices, wireless radio, and software to monitor a train’s position and speed. It can slow or stop a train if a collision is imminent. In particular, PTC is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailment caused by excessive speed, unauthorized incursions by trains onto sections of track where repairs are being made, and movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position.
The installation of this technology on all passenger trains and trains carrying toxic chemicals was mandated by Congress following the L.A. Metrolink crash in 2008 which killed 25 people, but the implementation process is proving lengthy, with many railroad companies not expecting to meet the December 2015 deadline.
One of the obstacles to swift adoption is the complex nature and high cost associated with developing an interoperable communications system that will connect freight, passenger, and commuter trains.
The Association of American Railroads estimates that for freight rail operators alone, the government regulation requires upward of 20,000 freight trains to be fitted with PTC technology, plus the construction of an additional 20,000 cell signaling towers along more than 60,000 miles of rail line. Freight train workers will also have to receive the appropriate instruction on how to operate the new equipment.
Some railway lines—including Metro-North—are poised to adopt PTC, but because commuter railroads often share freight train tracks, these operators must wait until freight railroads and Amtrak have installed the technology before it can be adopted widely on passenger trains.
Locally, in the Boston area, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is pushing forward with a $400 million PTC installation project for its Green Line following a May 2008 rush-hour crash.
That Green Line crash killed the train operator, who was believed to have dozed off at the controls. An investigation into the incident led NTSB officials to conclude that PTC technology could have stopped the train before the collision.
Last year, a Green Line operator rammed his trolley into another one standing at Boylston Station, sending 37 people to the hospital. The operator claimed he was sleepy after working the overnight shift at a second job.
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