Biloxi bus crash high­lights lim­its of high-tech safety mea­sures for trains

‘Pos­i­tive train con­trol’ man­date didn’t ad­dress ob­struc­tions on tracks.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben Wear bwear@states­man.com

Biloxi’s gant­let of dan­ger­ous rail cross­ings and his­tory of deadly col­li­sions, fed­eral statis­tics show, in­creas­ingly is the ex­cep­tion in what is be­com­ing a demon­stra­bly safer U.S. rail net­work.

Deaths con­nected to the na­tion’s 170,000-mile net­work of freight and pas­sen­ger lines (not in­clud­ing light rail and sub­ways) have de­creased by about 23 per­cent since the late 1990s, ac­cord­ing to Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion fig­ures. And the na­tion’s freight and com­muter rail sys­tems are in the mid­dle of a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar ef­fort to in­stall high­tech sys­tems that could make the net­work even safer — though it wouldn’t have pre­vented Tues­day’s fa­tal ac­ci­dent in Mis­sis­sippi.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study

from OneRail Coali­tion, an ad­vo­cacy group for the in­dus­try, in the past 10 years:

Train ac­ci­dents of all types have de­clined 31 per­cent.

Derail­ments have gone down 33 per­cent.

Grade-cross­ing in­ci­dents have fallen by 23 per­cent.

In Texas, rail-re­lated deaths have fallen from an av­er­age of about 92 a year to an av­er­age of 61 an­nu­ally over the past five years.

In­dus­try of­fi­cials credit the im­prove­ment to a num­ber of fac­tors, in­clud­ing track and sig­nal­iza­tion im­prove­ments, im­proved tech­nol­ogy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment for rail op­er­a­tors and elim­i­na­tion of many dan­ger­ous grade cross­ings.

Even so, 813 peo­ple in the U.S. died in rail-re­lated ac­ci­dents last year, 265 of them at road­way-rail cross­ings like the one in Biloxi, Miss., where a bus­load of Bas­trop seniors and other tourists was hit Tues­day when the bus got stuck on the tracks. The vast ma­jor­ity of rail­road deaths in­volve what reg­u­la­tors de­scribe as “tres­passers” on rail­road right of way, sim­i­lar to the Fri­day in­ci­dent in which a Crock­ett High School stu­dent re­ceived se­ri­ous but not life-threat­en­ing in­juries while walk­ing along the tracks near Stass­ney Lane.

Emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy could pre­vent such tragedies in the fu­ture, said Mike Slack, an Austin plain­tiff ’s at­tor­ney with deep ex­pe­ri­ence in trans­porta­tion cases, by de­tect­ing such “track ob­struc­tions.” Slack said such sen­sors should be part of the “pos­i­tive train con­trol” man­date from the fed­eral govern­ment, which is sched­uled to take ef­fect by the end of next year.

Pos­i­tive train con­trol, us­ing GPS and other tech­nol­ogy, would slow down or even stop trains — both com­muter and freight trains — found to be on tracks where they don’t be­long or oth­er­wise pose threats to other trains. It would also au­to­mat­i­cally slow lo­co­mo­tives that ex­ceed safe speeds.

In­dus­try of­fi­cials say the sys­tem, which in­volves sen­sors and con­trols in­stalled on the trains as well as track tech­nol­ogy, was in­tended pri­mar­ily to pre­vent trains from run­ning into each other, not to avoid col­li­sions with pedes­tri­ans or road ve­hi­cles. And at an es­ti­mated cost of $20 bil­lion or more, the changes are al­ready mas­sively ex­pen­sive.

The fed­eral re­quire­ment for this sys­tem, put into law in the wake of the 2008 headon col­li­sion of a com­muter train and a freight train in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia that killed 25 peo­ple, was to take ef­fect by the end of 2015, but Congress and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in Oc­to­ber of that year pushed the dead­line back three years.

The re­quire­ment ap­plies to Cap­i­tal Metro’s MetroRail, which will spend $10 mil­lion this year equip­ping the 32-mile com­muter line. The to­tal cost by the end of next year, ac­cord­ing to the agency, will ap­proach $50 mil­lion.

The sys­tem re­quired by the fed­eral govern­ment wouldn’t have pre­vented the 2014 MetroRail crash in­volv­ing a truck that busted through a low­ered cross­ing gate arm, or the 2012 crash in which a man died and his chil­dren were hurt when their car got stuck on a rail cross­ing. Nor would it have stopped the train that hit the bus in Biloxi, killing four and send­ing 35 to the hos­pi­tal.

Fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors are still try­ing to de­ter­mine how long the Echo Trans­porta­tion bus was stuck on the tracks be­fore be­ing hit by the train, and how quickly the bus driver be­gan evac­u­at­ing pas­sen­gers. In such cases, fed­eral guide­lines in­struct driv­ers to im­me­di­ately be­gin get­ting pas­sen­gers off a bus stalled on or oth­er­wise un­able to get off train tracks.

Slack ar­gues the pos­i­tive train con­trol sys­tem could and should be de­signed to de­tect and re­spond to fixed ob­struc­tions on tracks.

He pointed to the emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy that is mak­ing it pos­si­ble, in the much more com­plex en­vi­ron­ment of city streets and high­ways, for cars to au­tonomously avoid ac­ci­dents and, ul­ti­mately, drive with­out a hu­man at the con­trols. Slack said that in the much more con­tained en­vi­ron­ment of a rail sys­tem, even one as ex­pan­sive as the U.S. net­work, sim­i­lar equip­ment makes sense.

“The tech­nol­ogy is avail­able and fea­si­ble,” he said. “There’s a pretty good case to be made: Why not in­clude ‘track ob­struc­tion’ in pos­i­tive train con­trol?”

JAMES ED­WARD BATES / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

CSX em­ploy­ees work Wed­nes­day to re­place the cross­ing arms and lights at the cross­ing in down­town Biloxi, Miss., where a char­ter bus car­ry­ing seniors from Bas­trop was struck by a train the day be­fore.

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