Biloxi bus crash highlights limits of high-tech safety measures for trains
‘Positive train control’ mandate didn’t address obstructions on tracks.
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?”
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.