New Jersey

Train Safety Analysts: Positive Train Control Vital to Preventing Future Accidents

The commuter train that crashed into New Jersey Transit’s Hoboken terminal Thursday morning was not equipped with the positive train control technology

As investigators explore the cause of the Hoboken Terminal train crash that killed at least one passenger and injured more than 100 others, some industry analysts are pointing to the need for an already approved safety measure, Positive Train Control (PTC), which they say would prevent many train accidents.

NBC News reported that the commuter train that crashed into New Jersey Transit’s Hoboken terminal Thursday morning was not equipped with PTC technology. Additionally, no single New Jersey Transit employee been trained how to use the technology, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Transportation progress report, which is dated Sept. 13.

During a briefing a representative from the National Transportation Safety Board said they would "absolutely" be looking into if PTC could have prevented the crash. The engineer was among the survivors, according to a law enforcement official. He was being treated at a local hospital for serious injuries, but N.J. Gov. Chris Christie said the engineer was cooperating with authorities.

When asked about PTC at a presser and if it could have prevented the accident, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said it was too early to make that determination.

"We don't know what the exact circumstances were that caused the train to continue into the station at that high rate of speed," he said. "It could have been any number of reasons. So before we start to prescribe solutions, we have to find out what the problem was."

Preliminary reports suggest the crash was either accidental or caused by operator error, according to law enforcement officials. 

Richard Beal, a certified locomotive engineer with over 30 years of railroad operating experience, said while specific details of the Hoboken crash were still incoming, he has no doubt PTC needs to be instituted industry-wide on a faster scale.

"They’ve got to get positive train control implemented," he said. "They’ve been talking about for over a year. If they had that in place then the computers would take over if the engineer doesn’t react the way he’s supposed to do in an emergency situation. The Amtrak accident in Philadelphia kicked them in the rear end to get them talking about positive train control. But It just hasn’t actually kicked into play yet."

Eight people were killed and more than 200 passengers injured aboard Amtrak #188, which was traveling on May 12, 2015, from Washington, D.C., through Philadelphia en route to New York City at the time of the crash.

According to Metrolink, PTC is GPS-based safety technology capable of preventing train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, unauthorized incursion into work zones and train movement through switches left in the wrong position. PTC monitors and, if necessary, controls train movement in the event of human error. PTC may also bring trains to a safe stop in the event of a natural disaster.

“PTC sends up-to-date visual and audible information to train crew members about areas where the train needs to be slowed or stopped. This information includes the status of approaching signals, the position of approaching switches, speed limits at approaching curves and other reduced-speed locations, speed restrictions at approaching crossings and speed restrictions at areas where work is being performed on or near the tracks," according to the Metrolink website. "PTC communicates with the train’s onboard computer, allowing it to audibly warn the engineer and display the train’s safe braking distance based on the train’s speed, length, width, weight, and the grade and curvature of the track. If the engineer does not respond to the ample audible warning and screen display, the onboard computer will activate the brakes and safely stop the train."

According to the Association of American Railroads, PTC when properly implemented would prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed, unauthorized incursions by trains onto sections of track where maintenance activities are taking place and movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong positions. 

PTC would not however prevent accidents caused as a result of track equipment failure, improper vehicular movement through a grade crossing, trespassing on railroad tracks or some types of train operator error, the group says on its website. 

In 2008, Congress passed "The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008" (RSIA 08) mandating all Class I freight railroads implement PTC on main lines with regularly scheduled passenger service.

Railroads advised Congress repeatedly that they would not be able to meet the initial deadlines as the work gone more slowly than expected. The deadline has been repeatedly extended and is now Dec. 31, 2018.

Bob Chipkevich, who formerly headed the National Transportation Safety Board's train crash investigations section, told The Associated Press the agency will be looking at whether the train was exceeding speed limits, both when it was approaching the station and when it entered the station area.

Last month, the Federal Railroad Administration said New Jersey Transit had a lot of work yet to do on installing the necessary equipment. New Jersey Transit responded that the report didn't reflect the work it had accomplished.

Dr. Allan M. Zarembski, a professor of civil & environmental engineering at the University of Delaware, is also a railway civil engineering and safety consultant who heads the university's railway engineering program. Zarembski said there was no doubt that if excessive speed was the cause of the accident, PTC would have likely prevented it.

"It's not a universal solution, but if the accident occurred from what I've heard it would have prevented this incident," Zarembski said. 

According to Zarembski, PTC works with a "speed map" which is programmed into the train along its given route. PTC ensures that the train is not exceeding its maximum rate of speed at any point along the given route. If it is, the system kicks in and automatically applies the brakes.

Zarembski said that in general trains should not be traveling at speeds in excess of five miles per hour when approaching a station.

As for the delays in implementing the technology across the board, it simply comes down to cost, Zarembski said. 

"It's a very expensive technology and it's non-funded,"  Zarembski said. "So each railway has to come up with the cost themselves. Those costs that can reach upward to $10 billion."

And since they have to pay for the technology themselves, Zarembski says many railways often argue diverting money from new equipment or track maintenance in turn could lead to additional accidents. 

Beal, who has held positions including switchman, trainman, conductor and engineer, is also concerned with what he believed were severe cost-cutting measures in place by many railways.

"Many of the major railroads have gone for years without two men in the front of the train cab and that’s vital in the case of a medical event or in the case of fatigue or even if the man hits his head," Beal said.  "If any of that happens, there’s no one else there to react. They go on the cheap and look to save money by not having a second person in the cab. When things like this happen they say you have ‘x’ amount of trains traveling versus this one accident. But the thing this is one incident that could have been avoided."

Beal, who now serves as a consultant for railroad, said that in his 30 years of experience he’s found human error has more often been the cause for major railroad accidents over mechanical malfunction.

"Most of the time you’re looking at fatigue or the engineer having some sort of distraction,” said Beal, who is also concerned about the lack of experience among many newer engineers. 

"They’re getting too many newbies who are not well-trained or well-versed in the industry and to put them out there alone is just wrong," Beal said.

It was not immediately clear who was operating the train in the Hoboken crash. 

As the investigation into the crash begins in earnest, Beal said investigators will go straight to the black boxes to paint a picture of what went wrong.

"Some of these trains have cab videos and in some cases they have inward facing cameras so we’ll be able to get a good look and see exactly what was going on with the engineer," he said. "They’ll investigate the history of the train and determine if its had any issues with brakes in the past  and what the mechanical breakdown of the train is."

--The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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