Metro-North Crash Intensifies Calls for Improved Safety, Funding

As the investigation of the deadly New York City train derailment this week continues, transportation regulators and industry groups have zeroed in on the issue of safety—specifically, the funding and technology needed to make commuter rail travel more secure.

The theories and questions began to fly almost as fast as the Metro-North commuter train jumped the tracks. Was the engineer, a veteran operator named William Rockefeller, responsible for guiding the locomotive through a notoriously curvy stretch of rail just north of Manhattan, somehow distracted? Did a mechanical failure prevent the brakes from being applied in time? Officials likely won’t know the answers to these and other questions for weeks—maybe months.

The case we’re making to Congress is that there are greater investment needs all across the country.

What they do know is that the train was traveling at a high rate of speed—nearly 82 miles per hour, or some 50 miles per hour more than the maximum allowable for that stretch of track—and that the train was not equipped with a special computer and satellite-aided control system meant to reduce instances of operator error.

That system, which Congress has required most railroads to implement by 2015, is expensive, and industry groups say that limited government funding for rail infrastructure could hamper efforts to improve safety. A recent Government Accountability Office report noted that the majority of commuter lines are run by nonprofit organizations with public money, and that, thanks to the economic slowdown, there is an “overall lack of federal funding available to make investments.”

Safety vs. Funding

The crash, which killed four people and injured 70, is yet another black eye for a railroad that just two years ago became the first in the nation to win the coveted Brunel Award for design and engineering. Last month, according to a Bloomberg report, the railroad was cited by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for a maintenance backlog. In May, two trains collided on a stretch of track in Connecticut. All 700 passengers survived.

“One of the reasons this is all so stunning is that this kind of thing doesn’t historically happen on Metro-North,” William Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), told the news service. “It has been a very difficult year for the railroad.”

But the problems aren’t confined to Metro-North. Across the country, transportation and railroad industry groups have complained about a lack of funding and technology needed to keep commuter rail travel safe.

As reported by NBC News, Congress has ordered most of the country’s passenger and freight rail systems to deploy positive train control (PTC), a satellite and computer-based system designed to reduce the risk of human error. Among its many features, the technology can warn crew members if a train is traveling too fast and reportedly even help prevent trains from colliding. But the system is costly—and industry watchers, including the Federal Railroad Administration, have indicated that many railroads are not on pace to have the PTC systems installed by the 2015 deadline Congress set in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

At a Senate hearing in June, NBC News reports, Kathryn Waters, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), told lawmakers that the cost of the PTC system had ballooned beyond the initial estimate of $2 billion, essentially forcing railroads to choose between “performing critical system safety maintenance projects” and installing the system.

Railroad representatives and others also say the technology will require significant training and will take time to test.

Making the Case

In Washington, groups representing the transportation sector continue to lobby for more funding.

“The case we’re making to Congress is that there are greater investment needs all across the country,” Brian Tynan, the APTA’s director of government relations, told NBC News.

But will Congress listen? Following the crash, NBC News quoted Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who said, “this incident, if anything, heightens the importance of additional safety measures.” Blumenthal later added that railroads should move to meet the 2015 deadline to install the positive train control system, saying, “additional delay certainly is not in the interest of rail safety.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted an NTSB official as saying Tuesday that it was “possible that PTC could have prevented” the Metro-North crash. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) had said Monday that there was no telling—yet—whether the technology would have made a difference, but that safety should be a top concern.

Flickr/Barry Solow

Corey Murray

By Corey Murray

Corey Murray is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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