Articles Posted in Trains

The exact details surrounding this week’s horrible train crash in Dupont, Washington, south of Seattle, are still being pieced together. If the media reports that have emerged this week are accurate, however, they paint a picture of an extremely reckless engineer. That, in turn, raises questions about the safety controls and background procedures which Amtrak has – or should have had – in place to prevent exactly this kind of accident.

According to The New York Times, investigators at the crash scene near Tacoma are “focusing on the possibility that the engineer was distracted by a cellphone, another person in his cab or something else when the train barreled into a curve 50 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.” The driver and other members of the train crew, all of whom are currently hospitalized, will also be tested for drug and alcohol use.

As numerous media accounts have noted in the days since the crash, this accident in many ways resembles another fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia in 2015. In that instance the train was also traveling much too quickly, leading it to jump the tracks. An investigation showed that the engineer, who died in the accident, had “lost situational awareness,” according to the Times. The combination of distraction and lack of familiarity with the train’s route is emerging as a focus of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation. Monday’s crash took place during the inaugural run of a new Seattle-to-Portland passenger service and took place on a new portion of the route where tracks had recently been upgraded. The paper quotes a rail safety expert asking rhetorically whether the engineer driving Monday’s train was sufficiently familiar with the new portions of the route. “I’m sure there was some familiarization, but the question is, how familiar was he with it?”

The fatal crash of a commuter train near New York last month focused many people’s attention on deteriorating infrastructure and the dangers it causes. But closer to home we also have examples here in the Northwest of the problems caused by ageing rail infrastructure and, equally critically, the reluctance of both government and private industry to take the steps necessary to safeguard the public.

As Washington State’s Northwest Public Radio recently outlined an initiative is underway near Spokane to hold Union Pacific and other large railroads responsible for the damage they can do to local communities. According to the radio network, the proposed ballot initiative (which, if accepted, would be voted on at a local election next year) “could prohibit coal and oil companies from transporting their products through the city by rail.” City leaders have been forced to put forward this proposal focusing on the owners of individual rail cars rather than the railroad itself because, according to one City Council member “we also engaged in negotiations with the railroads and they said, ‘you know, we’re just pulling these cars, we don’t own them.”

The problem is that under current law the railroads and the companies for which they haul materials each attempt to shift responsibility for accidents and environmental damage to the other. In addition, the radio network reports, “railroad companies have also argued federal law trumps local regulation anyway.”

A party line vote in the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee this week marked a big win for industry lobbyists and loss for consumers. According to a report in the Washington Post the approved legislation, which now heads to the full Senate, “brims with industry-sought provisions that would block, delay or roll back safety rules.”

The newspaper’s account focuses in particular on auto and rail safety. According to the Post the bill “would block a new Department of Transportation rule requiring that trains hauling crude oil are equipped with electronically-controlled brakes that affect all cars at the same time.” It would also delay rules requiring both freight and passenger trains to have “positive train control” safety systems, despite the fact that most observers believe the recent fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia could have been avoided if a PTC system had been in place on the train in question.

On our roads, the bill would roll back measures intended to curb car accidents here in Oregon and around the nation by increasing the size of the fines the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can assess against auto makers. Those fines are currently capped at $35 million – a relatively small sum for any big global carmaker – at a time of record-shattering auto recalls. The NHTSA had sought the authority to levy fines of up to $300 million, believing that the higher number would give car companies more incentive to put safety first. The committee reduced that to $70 million.

The fatal crash of a commuter train this week near New York City has brought the dangers of grade crossings back into the national spotlight. The MetroNorth train struck an SUV on the tracks in Valhalla NY, in suburban Westchester County, on Wednesday. The crash killed the SUV’s driver as well as five passengers on the train.

This transportation accident has resonance even here in Oregon. As I have regularly documented on this blog, Tri-Met’s bus and light-rail systems have suffered several fatal accidents involving pedestrians and bike riders over the last few years. The newspaper notes that nationally “the numbers of accidents and fatalities at rail crossings have fallen steadily, as grade crossings have been eliminated and safety improvements made, according to safety groups.” Still, the numbers nationally remain surprisingly high: in 2013, 2096 accidents led to the deaths of 288 people. That is a reduction of about one-third when compared to 2004, according to the Times, but it is still a surprisingly large number of both accidents and fatalities.

The article goes on to note that the New York area, which remains criss-crossed with grade crossings to an extent seen in only a few other cities, has not seen train-car fatalities decline at a similar rate. The paper reports that “since 2003, there have been 125 grade crossing accidents on New Jersey Transit lines, 105 on the Long Island Rail Road and 30 on Metro-North Railroad, according to the latest Federal Railroad Administration data.

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