The danger train travel can't banish

Story highlights

  • Fred Frailey: Even after 185 years, train travel hasn't fixed possibility of human error
  • Frailey says positive train control technology may solve problem
  • System faces hurdles to meet deadline for installation; no guarantee it will work, he says

Fred Frailey has written for Trains Magazine for 36 years, most recently as a feature writer, columnist and blogger. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The rules by which trains operate on American railroads were written in blood. As the rail network developed in the 19th century, every accident was a lesson learned -- and brought a new rule to prevent it from happening again. Today the General Code of Operating Rules is a 167-page collection of lessons learned. But even 185 years of experience haven't yet protected railroads from the danger no rule can banish: simple human error.

No official cause has yet been given for the derailment of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188, racing in darkness from Washington to New York -- and it remains possible it was mechanical, not human error. The disaster killed eight people, injured more than 200 others and called into question the safety of Amtrak's busiest passenger train corridor.
    Fred Frailey
    But a few things are apparent. First, a sharp curve at Frankford Junction, seven miles east of Amtrak's Philadelphia station, restricts trains such as 188 to 50 mph. A readout from Amtrak's website showed the train approaching the derailment scene at 106 mph, or more than twice the allowable speed.
    So the obvious conclusion is that the train flew off the tracks due to centrifugal force caused by excessive speed. The mystery to this point is what occurred inside the cab of the electric locomotive to cause the train to roar out of control.
    Unlike commercial airliners, and even the Google car, trains are not computer-controlled. There is no autopilot. Moreover, trains such as 188 are operated with only the engineer in the locomotive cab. Speed restrictions for curves and other dangerous areas are contained in the employee timetable that all engineers carry with them. A loud, obnoxious "alerter" sounds in the locomotive when a control hasn't been touched for 30 seconds.
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    Nothing, however, prevents an engineer from dozing off in fits and starts or becoming inattentive or disoriented or ill and incapacitated. I've been told by engineers that they hear the alerter so often they can silence it by pressing a button while half-asleep. In a workday that can legally last for 12 hours, fatigue among engineers is a recognized problem.
    In fact, the wreck at Frankford Junction bears much resemblance to the overturning of a Metro-North Railroad commuter train 17 months ago at near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx just after sunup. The engineer of that train said he went into a daze and came upon a sharp curve at three times the posted speed. Four passengers died in that wreck.
    The good news is that preventative measures that would have averted the accidents at Frankford Junction and Spuyten Duyvil will be in place on all heavily used railroad routes within several years. The technology is called positive train control, or PTC. Conngress mandated that railroads adopt positive train control, at their sole cost (an estimated $13 billion), in 2008, mere weeks after the engineer of a Metrolink commuter train near Los Angeles became inattentive while texting on his cell phone, passed a red signal and collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train. That disaster killed 25 people.
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    And now the bad news: Positive train control is so complex that even seven years later it is not operative anywhere. Years passed while railroads agreed upon the engineering approach, then designed the systems that will keep trains from passing red signals and even exceeding the speed limits.
    Reviews by the Federal Railroad Administration, itself overtaxed by the enormity of the task, were interminable. Installation work stopped for a year when it was discovered that Native American tribal lands through which railroads operate had not been consulted so the tribes could search for artifacts during construction.
    Not until 2017 or 2018 will the large railroads finish installing positive train control. And until they do and flip the switch, there's no guarantee that it will even work. One fear is that positive train control will choke on its own complexity and slow the railroad network to a crawl.
    Meanwhile, Amtrak has its own version of positive train control, called Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System. Its sophisticated technology is tested and known to work. Alas, its adoption has been slow in the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor, operative only between Boston and New Haven, Connecticut, on a short stretch of New Jersey just outside of New York City and in parts of northern Maryland.
    So for now, keeping trains under control remains the responsibility of railroad engineers. They are a proud bunch of men and women -- I've met thousands of them -- and do their jobs faithfully. Like it or not, in their attentiveness and judgment lies our safety.