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Amtrak uses computer technology for safety at high speeds


October 12, 1996
Web posted at: 8:45 a.m. EDT

From Correspondent Ed Garsten

KALAMAZOO, Michigan (CNN) -- Barreling across a Michigan landscape, a diesel locomotive recently broke a milestone when it became the first Amtrak passenger train to carry a new computer-aided safety system.

The train, traveling from Kalamazoo to Niles, easily accelerated beyond the U.S. maximum rail speed limit of 79 mph until it reached more than 100 mph. (24 sec./948K QuickTime movie)movie icon

What enables the train to accomplish this without jeopardizing safety is a computer on board in radio communication with the signal system. It displays for the train engineer everything he needs to know to operate safely.

The system developed by Harmon Industries can actually take over from an engineer if warnings aren't heeded.


"A lot of nasty accidents that have happened have been due to human error. The purpose of the system is to eliminate human error," the company's Robert Heggestad said.

Indeed, it was human error that caused one of Amtrak's worst crashes in 1987 at Chase, Maryland.

The federal government is contributing $9 million toward developing the system known as high-speed positive train control. It is expected to reduce the likelihood of similar accidents in the future. The idea is to attract new rail passengers by offering a system that is faster and safer.

"We are focusing on a mission that says zero tolerance for any kind of safety hazard," said Jolene Molitoris, administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration.


So far, only a 22-mile stretch of track in western Michigan is equipped with the computer system. It is a heavily used stretch, moving a 500,000 passengers a year between Detroit and Chicago.

It will be at least a year before passengers between Detroit and Chicago can watch the world whiz by at 100 mph. The plan is to offer high-speed train travel in every corridor in the country.

But the government and Amtrak will have to prove that the extra speed won't derail safety.


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