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Train Crash May Underscore Need to Swift Implementation of Positive Train Controls for Major Railroads (Part Two of Three in Series)

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[This is Part two of three in this series]

The recent 2008 Los Angeles/Chatsworth train/railroad disaster serves to underscore the need for immediate regulation and implementation of Positive Train Control(automatic stop) systems for railroads in order to avoid death and injury to both passengers and the general public. Secondarily, it may be appropriate to implement restrictions on how and when railroad management and crew use cell phones/or handle text messages during train operations, as texting may have caused the Chatsworth train wreck according to investigators. Our personal injury law firm lawyers though based in Virginia, are active on a national basis in railroad safety/injury issues, with John Cooper serving as chair of the railroad injury lawyers section of the American Association for Justice until summer, 2009, and this author previously serving the same post. As active personal injury lawyers for rail workers, and for families in wrongful death railroad injury cases, we and the AAJ have also been involved in pushing railroad safety for years, and we have written extensively about railroad crossing safety law. The 2008 Chatsworth train collision occured at 16:23 PDT (23:23 UTC) on September 12, 2008, when a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on in the Chatsworth district of Los Angeles, California, in the United States. The collision is the deadliest railway accident in Metrolink’s history, and the worst in the United States since the Big Bayou Canot train disaster in 1993.

Railroad transportation, though the source of federal regulation mainly by the Federal Railroad Administration, has come under increased scrutiny over the years by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), charged with investigating major transportation incidents (i.e. train/railroad derailments, crashes, collisions, airplane crashes, etc.). Although technology exists to prevent head-on train/railroad collisions, the Railroads have almost unanimously refused to adopt this technology to make railway travel safe, mainly due to expense. The NTSB has been urging Railroad Companies to adopt these safety systems for over twenty years. The NTSB found in their investigative report for a prior April 23, 2002, Placentia, CA train collision that the absence of these safety systems was a contributing cause of the tragic collision. But the NTSB has no teeth, only recommendations. And the FRA has been known as one of the weakest federal regulatory agencies for many years.

What have commuter railroads done in the way of positive/automatic train control/stop systems? A spokesman for the nation’s largest commuter rail operation, the Long Island Rail Road in New York, said that it had studied Positive Train Control, but decided to stick with its “automatic speed control system,” a form of cab signalling with automatic train stop using technology that is more than 50 years old. The San Diego, California COASTER commuter line also has an automatic train stop system that its spokesman said will stop the train automatically if the engineer fails to stop at a red stop signal. Boston‘s MBTA says its “Cab Signal with Positive Stop” system can stop a train that passes a stop signal, or when another train is in its path; the system averted disaster in March 2008 when it stopped a train heading for a runaway freight car. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the SEPTA system in its region has Automatic Train Control on 80% of its system, and will install it in the other 20% by 2014.

As for freight railroads, a Norfolk Southern news release in 2006 stated: “The railroad industry has been evaluating positive train control systems for many years, and OTC is Norfolk Southern’s version of this. We expect to complete the first phase of our pilot project late this year. [2006]” Apparently, NS is still testing prototypes and the system is not active except in testing.

According to an FRA news release current as of April, 2008, On March 7, 2005, FRA published regulations regarding Performance Standards for Processor-Based Signal and Train Control Systems located in Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 236, Subpart H. A working group of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) first developed these performance-based regulations which require a railroad demonstrate with a high degree of confidence, that the risks associated with a new product being implemented are less than or equal to the risks associated with the product that is being replaced. The performance-based regulations became effective June 6, 2005. The new regulations support the introduction of innovative technology, including systems utilizing computers and radio data links, to accomplish positive train control (PTC) functions. According to the FRA, there are currently 11 different PTC projects in one stage or another of development and implementation, involving nine different railroads, in at least 16 different states, and consisting of over 4,000 track miles.

However, due to the September, 2008 Metrolink-UP crash, Congressional leaders may now clamor for implementation deadlines for positive train control. It appears to this author that FRA needs to immediately take a more active role in deciding which control systems are the “best” and weeding out some of the systems that have not proven workable. A review of the FRA release shows that a large number of technologies are vying for the “prize” but this is kind of akin to betamax versus VHS technology-decisions must be made that make sense and that unify protocols for these computerized systems, especially because some railroads share tracks.

My Take: The bottom line is this technology is moving into implementation way too slowly and the clarion call has arrived. Too many deaths, and too little action.