Wednesday, December 4, 2013
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.