Infrastructure & Environment

Bronx Train Accident Prompts Governors to Debate Rail Safety

December 5, 2013
 

By Daniel C. Vock

The train derailment that killed four people in New York Sunday has re-energized a long-running debate over the use of technology to prevent rail accidents—and placed the governors of New York and Connecticut squarely in the middle of it.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become the most visible official coordinating the response to the commuter rail accident, even though the response involves agencies from all levels of government. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy also has weighed in, pressing Metro-North, which also serves Connecticut, to improve its safety standards. Two of the agency’s trains collided in Connecticut in May, injuring 73 passengers and three employees.

Typically, states have a limited role in regulating railroads. Federal laws supersede state laws, although states can impose stricter rules on operators to deal with specific local circumstances.

But state officials can take on greater roles in the wake of a particularly tragic accident. That happened when a two-train collision in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Chatsworth left 25 people dead in 2008, and it may happen in this case as well.

Cuomo, a Democrat, was the first to publicly say Sunday’s accident was most likely caused by speeding. Cuomo called in to a radio show after federal officials said the Metro-North train was traveling 82 mph on a turn where the speed limit was 30 mph. “This operator is not going to be operating a train any time soon, of that I can assure you,” he said.

Meanwhile Malloy, also a Democrat, protested in a letter to Metro-North’s president that he and other government officials must be kept in the loop when an accident occurs.

“Too often, there seems to be an insufficient sense of urgency in communicating news and updates among senior management when an incident occurs. When major incidents occur, immediate communication with officials at every level of government is critical,” Malloy wrote.

Nationwide, 553 people have died in train accidents over the last decade.

Far-Reaching Consequences

The Chatsworth accident in Los Angeles occurred when the engineer of a MetroLink commuter train went through a stop signal and collided with a freight train. The engineer sent numerous text messages while at the controls, violating MetroLink policy. He died in the collision.

The accident sparked a nationwide crackdown on distracted driving, for transit operators as well as for everyday motorists. The California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees railroads among many other duties, banned the use of wireless devices by operators a week after the crash. The federal government followed suit a few weeks later.

The crash also was the catalyst for a federal law that requires railroads to install “positive train control” on routes carrying passengers or hazardous materials by 2015. The idea is to have locomotives and train equipment talk to each other using wireless signals. If they detect a danger—like a train traveling nearly three times the speed limit around a sharp curve—the train would automatically stop.

Existing train equipment uses circuits to keep tabs on individual trains, but it can’t provide the exact location and speed of a particular train at a specific time. Positive train control uses GPS technology to pinpoint a train’s location to within 7.5 feet, said Robert Halstead, the president of the National Association of Railroad Safety Consultants and Investigators.

Under positive train control, a locomotive leaving its terminal would be equipped with a computer to download files with detailed information on the train’s route, including road crossings, curves, speed limits and temporary hazards such as track work.

The locomotive would communicate with signals and track equipment along the way, to make sure the engineer abided by safety restrictions. If the engineer did not respond to warnings, the system would bring the train to a complete halt, Halstead said.

Congress passed the requirement to install positive train control within weeks of the Chatsworth crash. At the time, however, most of the technology it mandated did not exist.

Amtrak now has elements of the system installed and MetroLink plans to roll out its own system next summer. But few commuter agencies or freight railroads anticipate meeting the 2015 deadline.

Malloy, the Connecticut governor, urged Metro-North to “expedite full implementation” of the technology in light of the agency’s recent troubles. “This is an essential investment in safety that is a top priority,” he wrote.

A Shortage of Money

Malloy said his state has reliably funded Metro-North’s budget requests and backed efforts to secure federal funds, too. But transit agencies say the money Congress has dedicated to positive train control is nowhere near what is needed.

It will cost $2.75 billion to set up the system in the areas required by Congress, but federal lawmakers have approved just $50 million to fund it, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which represents transit agencies. That means Congress would foot the bill for less than 2 percent of the law’s costs.

Commuter rail agencies have already spent more than $458 million to try to meet the federal deadline, but APTA is lobbying Congress to move back the deadline to the end of 2018.

“Commuter railroads are being forced to choose between performing critical system safety maintenance projects and implementing (positive train control) by 2015,” APTA official Kathryn Waters told a U.S. Senate panel in June. She noted that transit agencies are struggling to find money to keep their tracks and equipment in good working order.

There also are technological and logistical challenges to implementing positive train control.

The biggest problem for railroads is developing systems that work together. Because freight rail companies often switch equipment, the technology on a Union Pacific locomotive originally designed to stay west of Chicago would also have to work with signals placed along track for New Jersey Transit, said Halstead, the accident inspector.

Furthermore, the Federal Communications Commission so far has refused transit agencies’ request to set aside a portion of radio spectrum to allow the wireless devices to talk to each other. The transit agencies also are asking for the FCC’s help in streamlining the approval process for an estimated 20,000 radio antennae poles they say would be needed to get positive train control up and running.

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