- News21 – National - https://national.news21.com -

Railroads Put Off Fixes to Prevent Train Collisions

Posted By admin On September 15, 2010 @ 7:37 pm In | Comments Disabled

GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – This tiny mill town has a before, and it has an after. The two were split as crudely as the live oak tree on Main Street when the hot metal of a derailed locomotive severed it. Before that 2005 train wreck, Graniteville was dotted with azaleas and sweet gum trees. Horse Creek was full of channel catfish and redear sunfish, bluegill and black crappies.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 6, a Norfolk Southern freight train traveling at about 47 mph approached the sleeping town. It carried paper, steel and loads of kaolin, the white powdery mineral used to make fine china and soothe children’s stomachs. It also carried the hazardous materials sodium hydroxide, cresol and liquid chlorine in pressurized 90-ton tankers.

The train was supposed to go straight through the center of Graniteville, past Johnny’s custom cabinet store and the First Baptist Church, before heading toward Columbia, S.C. But instead, a switch left in the wrong position by another crew caused the train to fork off the main track, toward the plant.

Engineer Christopher Seeling, 28, couldn’t tell that his train was being diverted off the main track until he was just a couple hundred feet from the split. It can take more than a mile to stop a fully loaded freight train.

Seeling frantically pulled the emergency brake, but it was too late. The train slammed into a parked locomotive, the metal twisting and sparking as 16 cars were thrown off the track. Diesel fuel pooled under the cars, kaolin powdered the bashed locomotives and tracks, and a 29-inch rip in the ninth car allowed liquid chlorine to gush out, mix with the air and turn into a lethal gas that killed nine people.

Plant workers who escaped, gasping their way through the poisonous fog, were joined at local hospitals by hundreds of other residents whose lungs were burning.

When volunteer Fire Chief Phil Napier arrived at the scene, he saw Seeling gasping and swaying by the wreckage as the chemical cloud rolled into the open window of his own truck. He called his wife and told her to take the kids and get out of town as fast as she could. In 90 minutes, more than 5,400 people would flee their homes.

“If you take poison and pour it in an ant bed, they just run for their lives,” Napier said. “That’s what we were doing.”

The devastating accident, from which Graniteville still hasn’t completely recovered, didn’t have to happen. It was preventable using a technology that the National Transportation Safety Board urged for 35 years until Congress finally stepped in and mandated it.

The board asked railroads to employ a form of automated train control as early as 1970 after a head-on collision between two commuter trains in Darien, Conn., killed four and injured 45. The Federal Railroad Administration considered it but decided that it was too expensive.

“Because of its costs and necessary extensive installation it does not appear possible at this time,” the FRA wrote in a 1972 letter to the NTSB.

Over the next four decades, the NTSB investigated accident after accident that investigators said could have been prevented with positive train control. Had railroads installed such a system, more than 780 accidents might have been prevented, according to a News21 analysis.

In a safety recommendation letter to the FRA dated two years before the collision in Graniteville ever happened, then-NTSB Chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners wrote that “Safety Board railroad accident investigations over the past 30 years have shown conclusively that the most effective way to avoid train-to-train collisions is through the use of positive train control systems.”

If a positive train control system had been in place, Seeling would have received a warning that he was approaching a switch that was directing him off the main track. He would have had plenty of time to confirm the train’s direction through Graniteville or stop the train. He could have avoided an accident that virtually destroyed a town.

Costs and Benefits

The Federal Railroad Administration estimates roughly a third of all train accidents are caused by human error, exactly the type of mistakes positive train control can help avoid.

Positive train control is not a single piece of hardware but rather a system of equipment, communications and infrastructure that can prevent train collisions and derailments. The system is designed to precisely determine the speed and location of trains and warn crews of potential problems. If the operator does not respond to a warning, the train will brake automatically.

Some form of train control has been available as far back as the 1920s and was used on several lines until the national obsession with highway travel cut into railroad passengers and funding. The train control systems, which were expensive to maintain, languished and were largely discontinued.

The positive train control that parked itself on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List for nearly two decades is more advanced. And it’s even more expensive. For that reason, the recommendations to install it went unheeded by railroad officials who didn’t think the safety benefits were worth the cost.

The price tag is formidable. The FRA estimates it would cost $5.4 billion to put a national system in place. Then there are the projected maintenance costs of hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Positive train control could prevent approximately five passenger deaths a year, according to News21 analysis of FRA data. That makes it a very expensive technology based on number of lives saved.

The U.S. Department of Transportation uses a cost-benefit analysis to decide what safety measures to adopt. The analysis puts the value of a human life at $6 million.

Those kinds of calculations stop Graniteville’s fire chief cold.

“My family’s value is worth more than $6 million apiece,” Napier said, shaking his head from behind the cluttered counter of his hardware store on Main Street. “If a railroad makes a fatal mistake, they shouldn’t put a maximum value on a life.”

Within three years of the crash in Graniteville, the NTSB had investigated five more train accidents that positive train control could have prevented, adding 206 injuries, six fatalities and around $25 million in damage.

The FRA stuck to its conclusions that the untested technology just wasn’t worth the cost.

“Since the accrued safety benefits gained by the installation of PTC were far outweighed by the costs of installing the systems, FRA was unable to provide the necessary justification for mandatory implementation,” according to a statement provided by the FRA. The statement also said the FRA did not want to mandate a prototype technology that had not been proven to deliver the safety benefits the NTSB is seeking.

But when a 2008 Los Angeles Metrolink train crash killed 25, Congress decided to force the issue.

The commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train during the afternoon rush hour. Both trains partially derailed, and the force of the collision rammed the front of the Metrolink train back into its first passenger car, crushing the riders.

Photos from the accident scene show hundreds of yellow-jacketed first responders swarming over the wreckage like hornets, trying to extract and help victims, whom they laid out on multi-colored tarps.

When a uniformed police officer was carried from the car, her silver badge bent from the force of the crash, rescuers stood at attention. Two of the men who died were survivors of a previous train accident on that same commuter line three years earlier.

The NTSB investigation [1] revealed the engineer was too distracted by text messages on his cell phone to obey the signals to slow down and stop. After ignoring the final red light, the engineers would have had four or five seconds to look into each other’s eyes as they hurtled toward each other, too late to stop.

Had positive train control been in place, the train would have stopped automatically when the engineer didn’t respond to warnings to slow the train.

Federal Mandate

Within three weeks of the Metrolink disaster, Congress stepped in to do what the NTSB could not. It made positive train control mandatory.

The Metrolink accident “made clear the urgent need to fix our rail system and ensure the safety of passengers,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., before the Senate passed the Rail Safety and Improvement Act of 2008 on a 74-24 vote.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who voted for the act, said it was long overdue.

“We have known for years that positive train control can prevent collisions and save lives, and the NTSB pushed for its widespread use for decades,” she said in an e-mail interview. “Yes, there’s a cost associated with it. But this will save lives while boosting public confidence in rail travel, so the costs are well worth it in my view.”

The act requires the installation and operation of positive train control systems on all intercity passenger and commuter railroad lines, the most heavily used freight lines and any railway that carries materials that are toxic or poisonous to inhale.

Railroad leaders were shocked when they learned they were being forced to put the technology in place by 2015 with little financial help from the federal government.

At a recent rail conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, members of the American Public Transportation Association and industry experts debated the mandate and its likely effects on railroads.

Robert MacDonald, director of engineering services for B&C Transit Consultants, a U.S.-based engineering consulting company, called the directive a “herculean and maybe Sisyphean task.”

Like most rail providers, Howard Permut, president of New York’s MTA Metro-North Railroad, wondered how his company could focus so much money and time on developing and employing positive train control without disrupting service. He said the costs of the mandate might force Metro-North to choose between charging higher fares and reducing customer service.

Gerald Hanas, general manager of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, said positive train control will improve safety, but he added that the rail industry needs financial help from the federal government to install it.

Hanas said the commuter rail industry, which expects to spend $2 billion on positive train control, would like the federal government to come up with half that and states the rest. Hanas traveled to Capitol Hill several times to convince legislators that outside funding is essential. So far, no such commitment is forthcoming.

The FRA is accepting grant applications for railroads that are struggling to put positive train control in place, with $50 million up for grabs in each of the next three years. But companies think more money should be available, along with federal tax incentives and credits.

Rail officials also are concerned about whether the technology is up to the task. As of 2009, there were 11 different types of positive train control [2]being tested, and not all of them were working, let alone working together.

“There’s a lot of new technology, some of which is being invented as we speak,” said Gary Jarboe, maintenance director for Metrolink, one of the few lines that anticipate having positive train control in place before the 2015 deadline.

Then there’s the problem of radio frequency. The Association of American Railroads says there isn’t enough to go around for freight and commuter trains to use the same wavelengths. Without that, they won’t be able to communicate as they share tracks.

Other important questions remain unanswered. What if the satellites used to mange the onboard communications systems are disrupted? Will using automatic braking cause train delays since a human brain isn’t judging when to stop? By making it less important for engineers to pay attention, will they zone out while driving and neglect other tasks, like sounding the horn at dangerous crossings?

The challenge of positive train control is “first, do no harm,’” said David Turner, president of Turner Engineering Corp. “We know it’s possible; we know it can be done … (but) it’s a heck of a challenge.”

Long-term Challenges

Supporters hope that positive train control will help the rail business. Better dispatching and spacing of trains could save railroads diesel fuel and create more reliable service, which might, in turn, encourage more shippers to use rail.

But these benefits are unproven and uncertain. And even if they do come to pass, it won’t be for at least 20 years.

By then, perhaps, the oaks that still grace the roadsides of Graniteville will have sprouted leaves once more. The junipers, azaleas and pines will have blossomed along the streets of what longtime resident Rob Lowe called a “small town with gentle people and pure hearts.”

After all, Lowe said, “all the pine needles turned brown, but it didn’t kill them.”

Sept. 26, 2010

Article printed from News21 – National: https://national.news21.com

URL to article: https://national.news21.com/2010-2/positive-train-conrol-technology-crashes-ntsb

URLs in this post:

[1] investigation: https://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/2010/RAR1001.htm

[2] positive train control : https://www.fra.dot.gov/Pages/1265.shtml

Copyright © 2010 News21 - National. All rights reserved.