Fifteen months of investigations and hearings have lead the National Transportation Safety Board to conclude that the chief engineer of a Los Angeles-area Metrolink commuter train was texting when he ignored a red light and collided with a Union Pacific freight train. The Sept. 12, 2008, accident killed 25 people and injured more than 100 others.
In light of these findings, the agency is asking rail operators to speed up their adoption of required positive train controls that will permit the automatic and remote slowing and stopping of trains at risk for crashing. The NTSB is also recommending the installation of cameras and voice recorders in all locomotive cabs.
Many rail operators, including Norfolk Southern, already use video cameras to show and record conditions in front of moving locomotives but not within the interior, and management has agreed not to use the video for general random discipline The NTSB is now advising companies and regulators to point cameras inward. The agency has specifically requested that
- The Federal Railroad Administration "require the installation, in all controlling locomotive cabs and cab car operating compartments, of crash- and fire-protected inward- and outward-facing audio and image recorders capable of providing recordings to verify that train crew actions are in accordance with rules and procedures that are essential to safety as well as train operating conditions."
Rail operators "regularly review and use in-cab audio and image recordings …, in conjunction with other performance data, to verify that train crew actions are in accordance with rules and procedures that are essential to safety."
Each camera and voice recorder should have 12 hours of recording capacity, according to the NTSB. Companies would not have to release full tapes to the public in most circumstances.
Currently CSX and NS, for example, do not have cameras directed towards the crew, although audio and train performance data such as speed and horn use are detected. The NTSB recommendation is likely to set off a firestorm of controversy, as railroads would apparently have the right of general disciplinary use of the video and audio even when there is no collision or even a "near miss." Railroaders will worry about unfair "big brother" harassment use of such video.
My colleagues and I have argued for the necessity of positive train controls to reduce the risks for rail collisions. The value of external cameras to record the circumnstances of a crash and possibly to prevent accidents at railroads has been evident for some time, but the use of such devices is not mandatory.
Placing cameras and voice recorders inside locomotive cabs, however, will definitely allow operators to identify crewmembers who are doing unsafe things such as texting while trains are in motion. The presence of the cameras could certainly discourage unsafe activities, but where does safety begin and "big brother" use of surveillance end?
The NTSB often makes positive safety recommendations, but only the FRA and the U.S. Department of Transportation can implement regulations that become mandatory. If interior recordings of crew are implemented, the rules must bar any harassment or retaliatory use of the films and provide other protections of crews against arbitrary use of the films. In other words, labor and management will need to agree on clear rules if this recommendation is to become law.