Infrastructure Demands Action

It’s really sad to read stories like this and then realize they are nearly wholly preventable:

The revelation that a New York City commuter train derailed while barreling into a sharp curve at nearly three times the speed limit is fueling questions about whether automated crash-avoidance technology could have prevented the carnage.

Safety officials have championed what’s known as positive train control technology for decades, but the railroad industry has sought to postpone having to install it because of the high cost and technological issues.

Investigators haven’t yet determined whether the weekend wreck, which killed four people and injured more than 60 others, was the result of human error or mechanical trouble. But some safety experts said the tragedy might not have happened if Metro-North Railroad had the technology, and a senator said the derailment underscored the need for it.

That Senator, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, may draw up a bill to provide financing for the implementation. After all, Metro-North serves Connecticut, as well, and indeed, other derailments have occurred that positive train control, PTC, could have prevented.

In fact, this is the second derailment on this same stretch of track in 2013.

PTC is not a whole lot different than the radar-like systems on many luxury cars that not only can warn you of trouble ahead or to the side, but can wrest control of the car to prevent an accident, even applying the brakes within what it considers a safe stopping distance.

It should be mandatory. It will be necessary if the stated Obama goal of increasing high-speed rail transport is to be achieved, as it will also allow for trains to be run at faster intervals and shorter spacing. The “margin of error” becomes much thinner when you have a computer controlling the whole process. Just ask Amazon.com.

This particular incident occurred as the train entered a curve rated for a top speed of 30 mph at 82 mph, nearly three times the speed limit. The brakes were applied, but not until just five seconds before the derailment. Whether it was human or mechanical failure has yet to be determined. Four people died, tragic enough but it could have been far worse if the train had continued on into the Spuyten Duyvil, a notoriously treacherous split of water. Even if someone managed to escape the wreckage, they would not be safe until they reached dry land.

Infrastructure repairs and preventive measures tend to be expensive and require large capital outlays up-front.

The MTA, the agency who oversees the Metro-North system, is cash-strapped and in debt up to its eyeballs, thanks in large part to a series of mismanaged administrations that have insisted on holding bridge and tunnel tolls – a primary funding mechanism – in check while raising fares on the poor subway riders. This has forced the MTA to acquire large debts to pay operating expenses. It’s a little like borrowing from the bank to feed your family.

This pretty much means that any system upgrade of this nature will involve federal funding of some sort, and that means trying to get it through the Teabaggers. Does anyone see that as a likely probability, even with four people dead?

3 Replies to “Infrastructure Demands Action”

  1. Please note that a second person in the cab might well have served the same purpose. Reduction of manpower is not without consequences, you know. In this case, perhaps carelessness, but health issues; stroke, heart attack, seizures, and other causes can happen in a manner where the “dead man switch” does not become activated for a minute or more. Having two people in the cab is a safety feature, which was eliminated for cost savings.

  2. Train engineer ‘was nodding off and caught himself too late,’ union rep says

    (CNN) — The engineer who was involved in Sunday’s New York train derailment apparently “was nodding off and caught himself too late” before the accident that killed four people and injured 67 others, a union representative who has been meeting with the man told CNN on Tuesday.

    Anthony Bottalico, the union representative, said engineer William Rockefeller Jr. recognizes his responsibility in the incident.

    “I think most people are leaning towards human error,” Bottalico said.

    Rockefeller’s lawyer, Jeffrey Chartier, characterized what happened as “highway hypnosis.” He said his client had had a full night’s sleep before the crash, and that Rockefeller had no disciplinary record.

    In a brief conversation with investigators, Rockefeller said that moments before the derailment of the Hudson Line train in the Bronx he was “going along and I’m in a daze. I don’t know what happened,” according to a law enforcement official familiar with that conversation.

    Asked by investigators what he was thinking when he said he was dazed, the engineer said he couldn’t say. Rockefeller spoke to Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New York Police detectives at the crash site before he was taken to the hospital Sunday.

    National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener told a news conference that Rockefeller would have had a chance to get the necessary sleep prior to his 5 a.m. shift the day of Sunday’s accident, echoing comment from Rockefeller’s lawyer.

    According to NTSB representatives, results from alcohol breath tests for the train engineer were negative, and both the brake and signal systems in the deadly Metro-North accident appeared to be working. Other toxicology results have not yet come back.

    Fatigue is a factor being investigated, according to a separate New York law enforcement source. But Rockefeller also told investigators on site that the brakes had failed, as CNN reported previously. Officials noted the train had been able to stop nine times at stations ahead of the crash.

    Weener told reporters that the train was equipped with a “dead man’s pedal,” designed to stop the train if the engineer becomes incapacitated. But it was unclear whether that emergency system was activated.

    “We don’t know what that sequence was at this point,” Weener said. “It’s too early to comment on that. But yes, there was a dead man’s pedal.”

    Late Tuesday, the NTSB said the rail union has been kicked out of its investigation of the derailment for violating confidentiality rules.

    The agency specifically cited Bottalico’s comments as a violation. more

    1. To combine your comment with Jayhawk’s, I read that the engineer had only started the new shift two weeks ago. His previous shift, I read, had started at noon. So even if the railroad could not afford two engineers all the time certainly for two months after a change like from Noon to 5am would be prudent, while his internal clock readjusts.

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