New Jersey train crash: Life-saving technology was not installed on rail line

A packed commuter train slammed into the Hoboken, New Jersey, rail station during rush hour Thursday morning, killing at least one person and injuring dozens of others in a chaotic scene of broken concrete, twisted metal and dangling cables, authorities said. The crash is raising urgent, yet sadly familiar, questions about whether available technology could have prevented the tragedy.

Safety advocates have long advocated for “positive train control,” or PTC, a technology that saves lives by compensating for human error. Among other things, PTC could automatically slow a train to the proper speed. In a report released earlier this year, the Federal Railroad Administration, a body within the U.S. Department of Transportation, called the technology “the single most important rail safety development in more than a century.”

The life-saving technology was not installed on New Jersey Transit Rail, the line on which the crash occurred, according to Department of Transportation records as of the second quarter of 2016. 

Specifically, the records show that none of the rail line’s 440 locomotives have been equipped with PTC. None of its eleven track segments have been fitted with PTC. None of its 124 towers have PTC capabilities. Lastly, none of its 1,100 employees have been trained in using PTC. The records also show that N.J. Transit Rail has yet to submit a plan for future implementation to the Department of Transportation. 

According to an August update from the Department of Transportation, positive train control is scheduled to be installed on N.J. Transit Rail down the road in 2018.

Of course, the investigation into what caused the Hoboken crash is just beginning, and authorities have not yet determined whether positive train control would have made a difference in this case. But the technology is specifically designed to stop collisions caused by speeding: If PTC were active, a train entering a station above the established speed limit would automatically be adjusted to the appropriate speed upon entering the station.

“PTC has been one of our priorities, we know that it can prevent accidents.  Whether it has been involved in this accident, that will be one of the things we’ll be looking at carefully,” NTSB vice chair Bella Dinh-Zarr said at a briefing on the Hoboken crash.

Positive train control is not actually a new technology — which makes it all the harder to understand why train lines across the U.S. have lagged years behind in implementing it. Rudimentary elements of the technology have existed since the first half of the 20th century, and safety advocates have been pushing the railroad industry to implement it for decades now. Germany, Great Britain and France have had some form of automatic train control in place since the 1930s.

The current version of the technology uses a combination of digital radio communications, global positioning (GPS) data, and fixed wayside signal systems to send and receive a continuous stream of data about trains as they move.

Congress mandated PTC implementation back in 2008, after authorities determined that 15 freight and 10 passenger accidents between 2001 and 2008, resulting in 34 deaths and 600 injuries, could have been prevented by positive train control.

But Congress’ deadline for implementing positive train control has been anything but fixed. In late 2015, as the original December 31, 2015 deadline for implementation approached, Congress passed legislation extending that deadline to December 31, 2018, with room for certain extensions. That appears to be the deadline New Jersey Transit Rail is currently working towards.

Investigations show that a string of tragedies in recent years could have been prevented by positive train control technology. 

In May 2015, an Amtrak train derailed at a junction just north of Philadelphia, killing eight and injuring more than 200, after an engineer accelerated to 106 mph, more than twice the authorized speed. Investigators said the tragedy would not have happened if PTC were active at the junction.

Lawyers for the victims of that Amtrak crash released a statement Thursday urging lawmakers and regulators to accelerate the nationwide implementation of automatic braking systems, with include positive train control.

“The American riding public has shockingly once again had its trust and confidence in passenger rail operators shattered with this latest fatal rail accident,” the attorneys said. “This is another possible case where deferring safety-related spending is costing, not saving, lives.” 

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