Commuter Train Crashes Prompt Call for Safety Improvements

By Alan Levin | January 17, 2014

Commuter rail accidents including a New York derailment last month that killed four prompted a U.S. investigative agency to name improving transit safety as its top priority for 2014.

The National Transportation Safety Board, releasing its annual list of most-wanted improvements, said mass-transit agencies should take steps to improve safety systems to reduce the human errors that have led to accidents.

Metro-North Railroad, operated by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, had its deadliest crash in 30 years on Dec. 1 when a train derailed in the Bronx. A collision between two Metro-North trains near Bridgeport, Connecticut, on May 17, sent 51 passengers and rail workers to hospitals.

“Not everybody will like the actions that we take and not everybody will agree with what we say,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said at a Washington press conference. “But the NTSB speaks for the traveling public.”

The NTSB, which investigates transportation and pipeline accidents, has no regulatory authority. It uses its annual Most Wanted list to highlight the issue areas most in need of improvement.

Last year, the agency opened investigations into four accidents on Metro-North, Hersman said. In addition, the agency is probing crashes involving the Chicago Transit Authority and Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco area.

NTSB still has open recommendations from a 2009 collision between two trains on Washington’s Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The crash, caused by the failure of an automatic train-operating system, killed nine people.

Common Factors

The circumstances behind that accident was typical of what investigators have found at other transit agencies, Hersman said.

Washington Metro workers ignored alarms on the accident because they were overwhelmed by so many alerts, Hersman said. The board supervising Metro paid more attention to schedules than safety and managers didn’t follow up on employee complaints, she said.

The NTSB wants transit agencies to adopt programs that have proven beneficial in airlines, such as encouraging employees to report safety issues without fear of punishment and gathering data to spot shortfalls before they become catastrophic.

The safety board also renewed its call for the installation of positive-train control, a system that automatically stops trains if it senses a looming collision and won’t allow them to travel too fast. It would have prevented the Dec. 1 Metro-North accident, Hersman said.

35,000 Deaths

The Metro-North train on Dec. 1 derailed while traveling 82 miles per hour on a 30-miles-per-hour (48 kilometers per hour) curve, according to the NTSB. The straightaway leading to the curve had a limit of 70 mph.

Metro-North Railroad has been ordered by U.S. safety regulators to add a second train operator in certain areas as a result of the accident.

The Washington crash on June 22, 2009 killed eight passengers and the operator, and injured 52, in the deadliest accident in Metro’s history. The train ran into a stopped train in front of it after the failure of track circuitry that was supposed to alert operators to where other trains were.

The NTSB blamed a breakdown of safety measures. It recommended that Metro improve its automated train-control system and that U.S. transportation regulators gain safety oversight only given to states and local authorities.

The safety board also added to its Most Wanted list improvements on passenger ferries and cruise lines, driving while impaired by alcohol and drugs, and helicopter operations.

Each year 35,000 people die in transportation accidents, 90 percent of which occur on roads and highways, according to the NTSB.

–Editors: Elizabeth Wasserman, Bernard Kohn

 

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