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Railroads Balk at Crash Prevention Technology

Sep 22, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

For years, Metrolink, the Southern California commuter rail system involved in a fatal train crash earlier this month, has resisted installing automatic braking and other systems which many say could have lessened the severity of  - or even prevented - the fatal accident.  Now, a report by The Los Angeles Times recently found that such control systems have been installed in several places around the country where they have worked effectively.

The fatal Metrolink train crash occurred around 4:22 on Sept. 12, near Chatsworth, California, at the west end of the San Fernando Valley.  Officials said 220 people were aboard the Metrolink train, which was heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County.   According to the  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Metrolink train’s engineer failed to stop at the final red signal, which forced the train onto a track with a Union Pacific freight.  

Positive train controls range in complexity from sensors and automatic braking systems to sophisticated designs that rely on Global Positioning System technology, computers and digital radio communications.    According to the LA Times, positive train controls have been installed on railroads for almost 90 years in the United States. They were first required by the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1920, when 49 railroads were ordered to install train stop systems on some passenger lines. But because of the dramatic decline in train travel in the U.S., many of the systems were removed with the approval of federal regulators.   

According to the LA Times, the only part of Metrolink's 388 miles of track that has automatic braking is a stretch in south Orange County that was equipped with the system by another railroad before Metrolink began operation in 1992. Metrolink officials repeatedly have said that such controls have not yet been perfected to the point where they can be installed throughout Southern California's rail system, where 66% of the tracks are shared by freight and passenger trains.

But the NTSB says the systems have been proven in testing and practice.  For instance,  Massachusetts’ commuter rail system is equipped with sensor technology that was used recently.  One day in March, a 112-ton parked  freight car came loose and headed toward a commuter rail train carrying 300 passengers during rush hour 3 miles down the track. The technology stopped the commuter train, and though there was a collision, passengers suffered only minor injuries.

The NTSB recommended positive train controls more than 30 years ago.  In 1990, the agency added the technology to its list of 10 most wanted safety improvements. In August 1999, the federal Railroad Safety Advisory Committee issued a report stating that out of a sample of 6,400 train accidents of all types, 2,659 accidents could have been prevented had some form of positive train control been implemented.

Agency officials told the LA times that they are frustrated about at the slow pace of developing and applying positive train control technology around the country. They blame a failure of leadership in Washington and the railroad industry, which views positive train control as too expensive.


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