Technology Available for Train Safety Right Now Could Have Saved Lives

In light of the Amtrak incident that killed 8 people and injured over 200, I have to complain that the US authorities should have expedited a technological solution that will be mandated at the end of 2015 to greatly improve safety on the rails.

Earlier this year I wrote an article entitled Advanced Communications System for mobile fixed and Wi-Fi applications will save lives. This system would have saved lives and injuries in this crash and others had it been fully implemented in an urgent manner. Where is the “sense-of-urgency” when it comes to safety and precious human life losses?

Positive Train Control (PTC) was known about in 2008 when the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) mandated that it be implemented by December 31, 2015.

What are we waiting for????!!!!—-A train carrying poisonous gas to de-rail? Well the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published final rule amendments on September 27, 2010 and on May 14, 2014 for Class I railroad main lines (These are lines over which 5 million or more gross tons are transported annually) that handle any poisonous-inhalation-hazardous (PIH) materials.

So what if there are tracks that only carry a mere 4.9 million gross tons of PIH? And are human lives on passenger trains any less dear than those in a surrounding area affected by a poisonous gas?

GE Electric Transportation Systems (GETS) also has had a system called Incremental Train Control System (ITCS) which is a class of PTC that can prevent overspeed derailments and train collisions. So what is the delay? This system has been in revenue since 2000!!!! Too little—too late!

I don’t know the answers to why we do not have these systems deployed by now but here is a list of rail accidents by Wikipedia from 2000 to 2009 and one on Wikipedia for rail accidents by Wikipedia from 2010 to 2015 —Judge for yourself why I am angry, especially since I understand technology and the costs of technology for companies to deploy. What price do we put on human life when we have the technology to prevent these things right now?

Tell me if I am off-base!

9 comments on “Technology Available for Train Safety Right Now Could Have Saved Lives

  1. Steve Taranovich
    May 17, 2015

    I applaud the Federal Railroad Administration for mandating Amtrak to expand immediately the PTC technology this Saturday May 15, 2015.


    As a technologist, I cannot stand by silently when a solution exists to prevent these “accidents”. We cannot let funding stand in the way of passenger safety under any conditions. Deploy these systems now starting with the highest traveled routes and ones that have the most dangerous curves and please do it quickly.

  2. etnapowers
    May 18, 2015

    @Steve, I couldn't agree more with you on this point. The importance of our role as engineers is to contribute to the development of automated safety systems to increase the overall safety of passengers and finally to contribute to save many human lives by mean of an accurate and effective design and validation process of the safety systems.

  3. eafpres
    May 18, 2015

    @Steve–it is hard to argue against any safety-related technology in the aftermath of a terrible accident.  From my view, the main reasons PTC isn't implemented more is a cost-benefit analysis that is unbalanced.  All railroads operate on very thin margins at best, and Amtrak is losing money.  It's hard to understand that, given the statements about the area where the crash occurred being one of hte busiest corrodors, why they can't implement, say, a $1 temporary fare increase and fund PTC in a budget neutral way.


    I wanted to mention that another imporatnt transportation industry, the airlines, regulated in the US by the FAA, have taken forever to implemnt GPS on most passenger aircraft.  This leads to the sutiations where a plane goes missing and literally they don't know where it was.  From a technology infrastructure point of view, GPS is super robust and wildly successful.  Why are the airlines taking to long to put a receiver on every plane?

  4. etnapowers
    May 19, 2015

    @Blaine, you're absolutely right. I think that investing in safety has a short comeback in terms of revenues related to a perceived improved quality of the transportation process by the travel companies.

  5. Buck-on-Bass
    May 20, 2015

    What is the history of injuries and deaths that could have been prevented by the various safety technologies such as PTC, grade separation, better/different crossing protections, etc.  PTC does not prevent people from driving around gates at crossings or driving down tracks.  These are two other recent causes of rail deaths tat have been in the news.  And what about oversize loads getting hung on tracks and being hit as happened in North Carolina? Prior to the Philadelphia wreck, was there an indication that PTC should have been implemented faster other than to reduce risk and comply with the law?  I expect that any research into the loss of life that PTC would have prevented on Amtrak would show that many other risks on Amtrak are much higher.

    Don Philips and Fred Frailey have witten much about railroads for Trains magizine and for other publications.  They have seen the changes in the passenger and freight railroad industry.  While their views may not be as objective as some would like, they are critical of the industry and the politics tha surround the industry.  Their writings do enlighten those outside the rail industry to the realities of rail operations.  I recommend interested parties to read their rail safety and rail politics articles from the last decade to understand more about the industry, PTC, and what Amtrak is doing to survive. 

    Amtrak was created to allow the financially failing railroads to drop passenger service.  Since it's creation, Amtrak has been on a shoe string budget with various groups attempting to eliminate any federal funding in each budget cycle.  Yet, we have transportation representatives from Europe and Asia coming to see how Amtrak is able provide service with so little support from the government.  This funding situation has continued with supporters unable to get more funding restore Amtrak to health and replace 100+ year old bridges and 35+ years old cars while the opponents have not been able to eliminate the life support funding and let Amtrak die.  Unfortunately, many politicians in Washington are exploiting the tragedy for political gain and not addressing the real transportation issues.

  6. Danno78
    June 10, 2015

    How about using whatever funds are available for accident prevention in a way that is TENS of THOUSANDS of times more effective than for train safety?  At least 54,800 people (some estimate up to 137,000) are injured EVERY DAY around the world, with many incurring a permanent disability, as a result of auto accidents.  That's 20 to 50 million per year.  About 3,400 people are killed EVERY DAY in auto accidents and it's expected to rise if more isn't done to prevent it.  Let's say an average passenger train carries 1,000 people.  Then there would have to be around 54 to 137 train crashes EVERY DAY to injure as many people.  The same is true for airliners.  There would have to be over 20 fully loaded A320 passenger jets going down every day to kill as many people as are killed in car wrecks every day.  Can you imagine the hysteria that would cause?  So it seems the funds could be put to better use.  I can't wait until self-driving cars become widely available.

  7. Steve Taranovich
    June 10, 2015

    @Danno78—I agree—humans are distracted drivers—I'd rather have a “robot” driving (But I want to have meergency manual control should I decide to use it)

  8. Steve Taranovich
    June 10, 2015

    @Danno78—By the way—tight funding and scarce resources cannot be used for an excuse. Politicians need to manage the government like a business! We should not have to choose cars over railroad safety–but that's another argument

  9. Danno78
    June 10, 2015

    I agree.

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