Wednesday, December 4, 2013

About Trains

In the wake of the Metro-North tragedy in New York, I've been around the social media explaining some stuff about trains.  I know about trains, because I commute daily on Amtrak.  That's my train on the right this morning.  Looks funny, doesn't it?  That's because what you're looking at is the cab car, a modified passenger car that contains a compartment where the engineer drives the train.  The big locomotive is at the rear.

Like many commuter lines, mine runs on a push-pull system where the locomotive pulls in one direction and reverses to pull in the other.  This is because trains live in a one-dimensional world, and can't easily turn around.  Indeed, they only turn if they have a "wye", which is basically a three-point-turn on rail.   Using the push-pull system, they can reverse the train immediately, especially when it travels to a stub, or dead-end station (like Los Angeles Union Station).

The Metro North train was being pushed by the locomotive, with the engineer in the cab.  This was not the problem.  The problem was that the engineer was going too fast. News reports suggest he had reached 82 mph as he reached the steep curve in the tracks.  He should have been decelerating from 70 to 30 before then. Did he "zone out"?  Was he asleep?  Was he distracted?  We don't yet know why.  A few years ago, a Metrolink train in Chatsworth CA ran through a red signal, crashing into a freight train and killing a number of people (including the engineer).  That engineer had been texting at the time.

So, as I write this, sitting on that very train in the photo (I'm in the 2nd car back, though my wife wants me to sit in the 3rd--if that cab car hits another train, it will end up accordian-style inside the 2nd car), my welfare depends on the eagle eyes of the engineer, paying attention to signals and the dispatcher on the radio, ready to "dump the [emergency] brakes" (release all the air in the system) if he sees a problem.  (Around here, any problem is all too often someone throwing themselves in front of the train.  Suicide by Amtrak.)

There is a technology (called positive train control, or PTC) which can automatically over-ride the engineer, if he is going too fast.  The basic idea is very old, and I believe it was first deployed in the London Underground about 100 years ago.  The modern version is more tech-y. After the Chatsworth crash, Congress mandated that PTC should be installed across the country on passenger lines by 2015.  This is a very expensive proposition, in the billions of dollars, and the railways are balking.  Passenger rail runs on a shoestring in this country, generally publicly funded or subsidized, and they don't have the money.

But PTC almost certainly would have prevented this accident.

Four people died on the Metro-North train, most of them because the windows popped out and they were thrown out of the train.  That shouldn't have happened:  the windows are supposed to stay in place, to prevent such ejections.  Another failure that shouldn't have occurred.

It's a tragedy, because we have the technology to improve our infrastructure and prevent these accidents.  We just don't have the will to invest in it.

Update: here's an overview of preventable train accidents in the US.

1 comment:

8thday said...

I ride that exact train about once a month. My daughter, and her college friends, ride it almost weekly from their campus into the city. I don’t think any of us will ever be able to ride it again without saying a silent prayer for the dead and for those who lived who will be forever impacted by the trauma. Nor will we ever be able to ride it without wondering if our engineer that day is fully healthy and alert, and how fast we are going coming into that dangerous curve.

Still, I wonder about the cost of imposing more and more safety features. Of course, all transportation must have a certain level of safety, but I worry that adding more to the cost of public transit will price it out of the financial range of those people who need it the most. Especially since we will never be able to absolutely rule out the element of human error.

At this point neither Amtrak nor the Metro commuter lines impose any security screening for what is brought onto a train. Anyone could easily bring on a backpack bomb, timed to go off underneath Grand Central or Penn Station. The loss of life would be unfathomable. Yet I am still grateful that I don’t have to go through the hassle of security checks in train stations as I do in airports. I would personally rather have transportation safety money spent on removing drunk drivers from our roads. They cause over 10,000 deaths a year and I have been far more impacted by those than by train accidents or terror attacks.

Will we ever be able to 100% guarantee our safety? I don’t think so. When is enough safety/security enough? I don’t know. How much money do we want to divert from other needs to pay for added security? I suppose that depends on who you are.

Difficult questions with no easy answers.