N.J. train crash raises many familiar safety issues
The investigation into a New Jersey commuter train that hurtled into a station building Thursday raises many familiar issues from other crashes, including whether the tragedy could have been prevented or mitigated if a key safety technology had been in place.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, has been calling on railroads to start using the safety technology, called positive train control, or PTC, for nearly four decades. New Jersey Transit is in the process of installing the technology, but it was not in operation yet on any of the agency’s trains or tracks.
Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York cautioned at a news conference that not enough is known yet about the circumstances of the crash at the Hoboken station to say if PTC could have made a difference.
“Let’s find out the facts first, and then let’s follow the facts,” Cuomo said. any mechanical problems with the train or signals, whether the brakes were working and at the condition of the track. They’ll also examine what the train engineer was doing at the time of the crash, his overall health and whether he was wellrested or fatigued.
Operator fatigue has been one of the most significant on-going safety problems across all modes of transportation.
Witnesses said the train failed to slow down as it entered the station.
In 2013, a Metro-North Railroad Hudson Line commuter train derailed while going around a curve near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx, New York. The train was traveling at three times the posted speed. Four passengers were killed and 61 injured. The engineer later acknowledged that he had gone into a “daze,” and an investigation found that he suffered from untreated sleep apnea. them from disobeying signals, derailing due to excessive speed, colliding with another train or entering track that is off-limits.
The NTSB has said PTC could have prevented the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia. The train was traveling at more than 100 mph shortly before it entered a curve and derailed. Eight people were killed and over 200 injured.
Last month, the Federal Railroad Administration said in a progress report that PTC is only in operation on 9 percent of freight route miles and 22 percent of passenger train miles so far.
New Jersey Transit had yet to finish equipping any locomotives with the technology and had not installed any of the radio towers necessary to make the system work or completed installation on any track segments, the report said.
Since the NTSB started urging railroads to adopt some form of train control system in the 1970s, the board says it has investigated at least 145 PTC-preventable accidents in which about 300 people were killed and 6,700 injured.
After a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train collided head-on near Los Angeles on Sept. 12, 2008, the industry dropped its opposition, clearing the way for passage of a rail safety bill mandating the technology.
The Metrolink engineer was later found to have been texting. Twenty-five people were killed and more than 100 injured. The NTSB said the crash could have been prevented or mitigated had PTC been in place.
The Rail Safety Improvement Act gave railroads seven years to implement PTC, setting a deadline of Dec. 31, 2015. Last year, when it became clear that nearly all railroads would miss the deadline, Congress extended it for another three years.
Railroads say the technology is more complicated and expensive to implement than was initially understood. Major freight railroads, which frequently use each other’s tracks, took years to settle on systems that worked no matter which company’s tracks the train was on, a key requirement of the law.
Some railroads ran into difficulties acquiring the rights to radio spectrum, which is necessary for its wireless transmissions. Some commuter railroads have complained that they lack the funds and have other pressing safety needs that should come first.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, speaks during a news conference Thursday on the train crash at the Hoboken Terminal as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, listens in Hoboken, N.J.