Could a safety device have prevented the derailment?

December 3, 2013 8:53:47 PM PST
Pressure is mounting on the MTA and Metro-North to address safety issues in the aftermath of Sunday's deadly derailment in the Bronx.

Some safety experts said the accident that killed 4 people and injured dozens might not have happened if Metro-North Railroad had the right technology, and some lawmakers say the derailment underscored the need for it.

"This incident, if anything, heightens the importance of additional safety measures, like that one," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, which also is served by Metro-North. "I'd be very loath to be more flexible or grant more time."

The train was going 82 mph as it entered a 30 mph turn Sunday morning and ran off the track, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said Monday.

"They had the capability of preventing this accident by signal design," James Sottile, a former federal railroad administration train control specialist, said.

This former rail accident investigator says the automatic speed control system has been around for years. The train that derailed did have a signal system of colored lights inside the cab car that relayed information to the engineer about speed limits and any traffic ahead. What the system did not have was the capability to automatically apply the brakes to reduce speed or even stop the train when the engineer failed to slow down before the curve.

"They did not install a system that would have enforced a speed reduction approaching that Spuyten Duyvil curve by installing circuits that have been available for decades," he said.

Following a 1990 train derailment in Boston, automatic braking systems were installed on rails throughout the Northeast, including parts of the Long Island Rail Road and some of the sharp curves on Amtrak's corridor. That Boston derailment has striking similarities to Sunday's Metro North crash. In the Boston case, the Amtrak train was going "76 mph as it entered a 30-mph curve." The NTSB blamed that accident in part on ''failure to have advance warning devices for speed reduction." That same warning device was absent from the Metro-North train too. A simple alarm sound that could have alerted a zoned-out engineer to the approaching curve.

"I hate to sound overly emotional about it, but they didn't have to die, if that system was in place," Sottile said.

Positive train control, or PTC, is designed to forestall the human errors that cause about 40 percent of train accidents, and uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or going the wrong way. The transportation safety board has urged railroads to install PTC in some form since 1970, and after a 2005 head-on collision killed 25 people near Los Angeles, Congress in 2008 ordered rail lines to adopt the technology by December 2015.

Metro-North has taken steps toward acquiring it but, like many rail lines, has advocated for a few more years to implement a costly system that railroads say presents technological and other hurdles.

Grady Cothen, a former FRA safety official, said a PTC system would have prevented Sunday's crash if the brakes were working normally. And Steve Ditmeyer, a former FRA official who teaches at Michigan State University, said the technology would have monitored the brakes and would not have allowed the train to exceed the speed limit.

"A properly installed PTC system would have prevented this train from crashing," he said. "If the engineer would not have taken control of slowing the train down, the PTC system would have."

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North, began planning for a PTC system as soon as the law was put into effect, spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said. After some early-stage work such as buying radio frequencies, the MTA awarded $428 million in contracts in September to develop the system for Metro-North and its sister Long Island Rail Road.

But the MTA has advocated for an extension to 2018, saying it's difficult to install such a system across more than 1,000 rail cars and 1,200 miles of track.

"It's not a simple, off-the-shelf solution," Anders said Monday.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has asked Metro-North Railroad to provide an action plan addressing safety issues on its system.

In a letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Metro-North, Malloy wrote, "Connecticut has invested, and continues to invest, billions in our rail infrastructure, something that I continue to support. However, given many recent events there is understandably a negative public perception of the railroad infrastructure and state of good repair, coupled with deep concerns for our safety. While I know that our rail lines meet or exceed the minimum safety requirements set by the Federal Railroad Administration, our goal must go well beyond the minimum."

The Governor has requested that the action plan address communication, safety reporting, inspection and maintenance programs, remedial short-term action plans, and longer term capital investment programs to upgrade the infrastructure.

In addition, Governor Malloy has asked that the report from the inspection of the track that followed the Bridgeport derailment be provided immediately, as well as monthly reports of all track, bridge, signal, power, equipment inspection and maintenance action.

Meanwhile, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says the state is also taking new precautions to protect commuters.

"At my direction, the MTA will be implementing a Safety Stand-down that will require all employees to participate in safety briefings," he said.

The train involvedin Sunday's accident was configured with its locomotive in the back instead of the front. Weener said that is common, and a train's brakes work the same way no matter where the locomotive is located.

Still, some people feel the configuration provides less protection for passengers because if the train hits something, there's no locomotive in front to absorb the blow, said Bill Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, a riders' advocacy group.

This article contains information from The Associated Press