The Lesson of Chatsworth: Better Signaling Needed

Editorial By Noel T. Braymer

We know that on September 12th the engineer of Metrolink Train 111 failed to acknowledge or apply brakes for both a yellow and red signal. He even failed to apply brakes before running into a local UP Freight on a single track segment just outside of Tunnel 26. What we don’t know is why he failed to apply his brakes. This is a question for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to answer. The answer to this question will have a major effect on the lawsuits now being filed for damages because of this fatal crash. Human failure to stop for red signals on railroads is a major safety problem. Technology has existed for over 100 years to stop trains that run red signals. In California between Santa Ana and San Diego, Automatic Train Stop (ATS) signals first installed by the Santa Fe Railway are still in use. ATS will stop a train that runs a red signal. The ATS system used in Southern California is only used on passenger trains. Freight trains also run red signals, and a system is needed to prevent any train from running red signals to fully protect the public. A major issue for better signaling is their cost, and much of the cost comes from the amount of wiring needed to install existing systems.

The NTSB which investigates all major accidents has recognized the problem with trains running red signals for years. Since the 1970’s the NTSB has been studying and promoting a concept called Positive Train Control (PTC). Since 1990 PTC has been a high priority for the NTSB to see it established nationally on the nation’s railroads. The basic ideal is to use wireless digital communications added with Global Positioning System technology (GPS) that would give dispatchers instant and exact information about all trains. Major truck companies for years have used wireless digital communication with GPS to help dispatch their trucks. For PTC this would include the ability to automatically stopping a train that goes through a red signal. As a wireless system it would be much cheaper than trying to wire all the rail trackage in the country for comparable level of signal projection. There are 11 PTC segments running or being installed in this country now by railroads such as the UP, BNSF, the Alaskan and Amtrak. One of the issues is the question of standards. There are several manufactures offering PTC systems and they are all different and not compatible with each other. For the railroads the question remains if the cost of such a system will pay for itself in reduced costs and lower liability.

Since the horrific accident in Chatsworth on September 12th there have been calls by politicians to mandate the installation of PTC on the railroads nationwide. Both Senators Boxer and Feinstein of California are sponsoring legislating that will require PTC on busy rail lines by 2012 and nationally by 2015. Such laws are a step in the right direction. There are many issues which will have to be resolved before PTC can be installed nationwide. Hopefully by legally mandating its installation these technical issues will be soon confronted and resolved. The railroads have made great progress in reducing accidents in just the last 20 years. But with increasing freight and passenger traffic improved levels of rail safety will be needed to protect both the public as a whole as well as passenger and rail crews.

A potential benefit of using PTC is that dispatching and rail operations should run more smoothly and efficiently. This would mean increased track capacity, reduced operating costs for the railroads and less time for trains waiting at sidings. For many passenger trains it could open up higher speeds. The ATS system used in Southern California is necessary to run train in the United States at speeds over 79 miles per hour. PTC would fulfill the same function as ATS. But higher speeds will also require higher levels of track maintenance, track capacity and fairly level and straight track. PTC will ensure that trains are run at the proper speeds, report if switches are not properly aligned or if trains are on the wrong track and give dispatchers instant information when a train is in trouble. This would be useful in preventing other accidents and derailments besides when a red signal is run. In the case of Chatsworth PTC could have hit the brakes on both the Metrolink and UP trains, greatly reducing the impact of the collision.

Since the Chatsworth accident there has been much speculation about why the Metrolink Engineer failed to stop for the red signal. Questions have been raised that he was distracted using his cell phone, or tired from working to much overtime and there have been questions about his physical health as a diabetic. Changes in policy and rules may be in order. But the reality is that people are prone to make mistakes. Cell phone use on duty was already against Metrolink policy yet this engineer is known to have disobeyed this policy. Even if a person isn’t working overtime, they may fail to get enough rest before going to work. People will lie and hide physical and mental problems. The reality is people will make mistakes. Using a system like PTC can protect against human errors and prevent costly accidents with major loses in life, public trust and property.

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