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NJ train crash: The life-saving technology that wasn’t installed

HOBOKEN, N.J. — The deadly crash of a New Jersey Transit train Thursday underscores the need for a critical speed-control system on America’s railways, according to industry experts.

National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said part of the crash investigation will focus on positive train control. The safety system combines GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or speeding.

If a train isn’t being operated in accordance with signals, speed limits or other rules, the system automatically slows or stops it.

“That is absolutely one area that we always look into for every rail accident,” Dinh-Zarr said of the technology.

The morning rush-hour crash killed at least one person and injured more than 110 others.

New Jersey Transit has not installed PTC, though it does have an older safety system.

Congress originally required the newer technology to be operational by the end of 2015. It extended the deadline to the end of 2018 to avoid a possible shutdown of the nation’s railroads.

“Every PTC-preventable accident, death, and injury on tracks and trains affected by the law will be a direct result of the missed 2015 deadline and the delayed implementation of this life-saving technology,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said earlier this year.

But officials urged there be no rush to judgment on the circumstances.

While the cause of Thursday’s crash is unclear, Dinh-Zarr said investigators also will be looking at a Mother’s Day 2011 crash in Hoboken that injured 33 people.

The NTSB determined the probable cause was “the failure of the engineer to control the speed of the train entering the station.”

A contributing factor was “the lack of a positive train control system that would have intervened to stop the train and prevent the collision,” the agency said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it’s too early to know whether PTC could have made a difference. The cause of the train’s high speed is unclear. The train originated in Spring Valley, New York.
“Positive train control systems … can be a benefit depending on the circumstances,” but officials don’t know all of the circumstances, Cuomo said.

Dinh-Zarr told reporters an event recorder recovered from the locomotive will reveal the train’s speed and other information. The speed limit at the crash site is 10 mph.

The train engineer had been released from a hospital and investigators intended to speak with him, she said.

Dinh-Zarr said she didn’t know whether the train was equipped with an “alerter” system — which require engineers to respond to alerts, sound an alarm if they are unresponsive and eventually brake the train in an emergency.

Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official and professor at the University of Delaware, said New Jersey Transit uses a less comprehensive system known as Automatic Train
Control (ATC) to slow speeding trains.

ATC has been in place throughout the Northeast corridor, the most heavily traveled rail network in the country, for nearly 40 years. The system notifies an engineer if a train is speeding and applies the brakes automatically if the engineer does not respond.

Newer safety system is costly

Ditmeyer said many publicly-financed railroads such as New Jersey Transit have been slow to switch to the newer technology because of the cost.

“There have just been a continuous series of accidents that could have been prevented with PTC,” he said.

“I’m not sure if this (accident) is going to make (PTC implementation) go any faster but we again see how important this system is.”

The railroad industry has opposed PTC because of the high cost and technological issues.

PTC technology is already being used in many freight railroads.

The Association of American Railroads has said freight rail companies have retained more than 2,400 signal system personnel to implement PTC and spent nearly $6.5 billion on development and deployment.

The NTSB has said that positive train control could have prevented numerous railroad accidents involving human error.

The agency often gives the example of the December 1, 2013, Metro-North commuter train derailment in the Bronx, New York, in which four people were killed and dozens injured.

The engineer had fallen asleep and failed to slow the train from more than 82 mph to the maximum authorized speed of 30 mph as it entered a curve, the NTSB said.