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March 16, 2015

New train crash technology may be the difference in lives lost due to vehicle collisions

by: Mary F. Schiavo

Two particular technologies are often of great interest to the National Transportation Safety Board whenever they investigate the collision between a vehicle and a train: the effectiveness and application of the crash energy management technology, which can use a number of different technologies to dissipate and absorb the force of impact, and Positive Train Control. Positive Train Control is intended to be a system that will allow PTC signals from many sources to communicate with each other.  PTC is designed to stop train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by speed violations and other unauthorized movements.

The recent collisions that occurred between trains and vehicles, including the tragic incidents in Oxnard, California; Alton, Illinois; Louisville, Kentucky; and the narrow escape of two passengers from an SUV in the path of a CSX freight train in Tonawanda, New York, will likely involve both of these issues.

U.S. federal law says Positive Train Control is supposed to be on all trains by December 2015, although the railroad industry is furiously lobbying to extend that deadline. The California Metrolink train had both crash energy management and Positive Train Control as of February 2014—largely because of the fatal 2008 Chatsworth California crash that killed 25 people.

Two main questions exist related to the crash energy management technology:

  • In the instance of a crash, will the NTSB be able to determine if either or both technologies made a difference?
  • Would there have been fatalities, perhaps several, without these safety measures?

Contributing factors to train/vehicle collisions

Now on to the harsh realities: 270 people die in train crossing accidents every year. The majority of them ignored signals, lights warnings and whistles, and many drove around the gates. Some even tried to beat the train.

However, of the roughly 212,000 highway-railroad crossings in the United States, not all have gates, lights or bells, leaving drivers to take their safety into their own hands. Not all crossings are in optimal condition, either. Issues such as poor visibility, bad signage, overgrown weeds, broken signals, obstructions and other confusing factors can easily contribute to a crash. Crossing conditions are the responsibility of the railroad industry, with each crossing indexed and assigned to a particular railroad company, so if crossing conditions are a factor, someone is responsible and must be held accountable.

As a former Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation, I can tell you that I always look and listen at train crossings, even when there are gates, lights and bells. My kids moan and groan when I do that, but I’m sure they’ll understand when they have children of their own to love and protect.

The fact of the matter is that a train going an average of 55 miles an hour will take one mile, or the length of 18 football fields, to stop.  If someone drives onto the track right in front of the train, it will not be able to stop in time. A train crashing into a car has forces equivalent to a car crashing into a pop can, and Newton’s law that a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless an external force is applied is simply an unbreakable law.

Railroad crossing safety is improving, but not enough

If we were to ever install a bullet train system similar to the one in Japan, where all crossings are elevated and no cars can drive over the bullet tracks, the issue of vehicle/train collisions would be moot.

I don’t think this is likely due to the number of railroad crossings throughout our country, but we have been able to significantly improve the railroad crossing safety rates in the U.S. through improvements in warnings and crossings and public education campaigns. In fact, during the past two decades the number of railroad crossing deaths have decreased more than 50 percent.

It’s my opinion that one way in which this number could be improved even more would be by making adjustments to local noise abatement laws that often prevent trains from blowing their whistles before approaching railroad crossings located near residential areas. While a train whistle may be a temporary irritation, it could be the difference in whether or not a train collision occurs. For me, a little noise is a small price to pay to save someone’s life.

Can future train/vehicle collisions be prevented altogether?

Apart from better crash prevention technology, could better safety regulations help prevent these types of crashes from happening in the future? If anything, the collision in California raises many questions for the NTSB.

For example, why is California number one in the country for grade railroad crossing fatalities, with 43 deaths in 2013? Comparatively, why is New York, a state that also highly utilizes the commuter rail system, ranked much lower for that same year with only nine fatalities?

Are the issues with the railroad system and crossing maintenance or do they lie more with the actual driver? Could a crash have been avoided if the driver was less distracted or more adept behind the wheel?

Let’s hope the NTSB can answer some of these questions.