Train derailments one of the safety issues in the ‘last great industry’



Chart showing train derailment causes. Contributed by Los Angeles Times

The train whistle blows and the last few stragglers run to catch the train. The steam wafts upwards as the great hall comes into view. Businessmen head towards the doors, late for work, while others check the timetables. It is Grand Central Station, the queen of railroads.

“Railroads are the last great industry in the United States. It built the country from its infancy into the greatest industrial powerhouse the world has ever seen,” Brandee Velez, Assistant Director of the Office of System Safety at Metro-North, said.

Safety was an arising issue with trains. There were many different safety issues but the greatest was railroad worker protection.

“Rails need constant attendance and care. Track repair and maintenance can occur on adjacent tracks and deal with high voltage electricity (650 volts) and must be de-energized before work begins on or near them,” Velez said. “Work involves many different departments from track workers to electrician to Rail Traffic Controllers who must ensure trains are running on the proper track.”

While worker protection was a main issue, another safety issue was derailments.

“Derailments are not very common in relation to the amount of miles a train runs. Any derailment is considered unique and involves a lot of investigation to find the root cause and to try and engineer the problem out,” Velez said.

According to the Washington Post, most derailments were caused by rail deterioration. Some derailments were caused by human error such as the Metro-North accident in December of 2013.

Velez said, “This was the worst rail accident Metro North has had in all its years in operation. Four persons died and 63 were injured in that one incident. The resulting investigation found that the engineer of the train suffered from a malady called Sleep Apnea.  In this case the Engineer of the train fell asleep at a crucial bend in the track. When he fell asleep he increased the speed of the train to over 80 mph where he should have been going only 30 mph.”

In response to this tragic accident, Metro-North reexamined its operating rules and emphasized more control of scheduled maintenance of tracks, Velez said. Metro-North also starting installing PTC or Positive Train Control.

“PTC is a means to automatically control the speed of a train in a given area,” Velez said. “In the case of the Spuyten Duyvil accident, it would have prevented the train from reaching a speed that would have caused the accident, most likely keeping it within the 30 mph the area allowed.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been requesting that PTC been installed. But due to the expense, the available technology, and other factors kept the program from being implemented. The unfortunate accident experienced by Metro North and other railroads throughout the country has now made PTC a mandatory compliance requirement.

“Metro North will be in compliance with this requirement by September of 2018.  There are many logistical requirements that are being worked out and resolved in order to have a reliable system,” Velez said.

In order to address the human error side of derailments, other technology was installed in the trains along with PTC.

“Metro North Railroad has installed cameras in the operating cab where the engineer sits and also viewing the track bed to notice if there was or is an anomaly that may affect train operations,” Velez said.

All of Metro-North’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. To date Metro-North’s efforts “have been well received by the FRA, the NTSB, and other organizations dedicated to safe rail operations.”

Velez said, “Metro North has recommitted itself to being the safe railroad it was from 2000 to 2008 where it won just about every safety award there was to give.”

One of the country’s most popular forms of transportation, trains are becoming more and more a part of citizens’ daily life.

“Railroads are now morphing into another power house as a people mover for everyday living,” Velez said, “bringing people from the suburbs to work, continue their education, and enjoy central metropolis activities.”