News

Metro-North Train Derailment Raises Questions About Technology

Safety Officials Say Positive Train Control Could Have Prevented Crash
Deadly Derailment

YONKERS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) – The revelation that a Metro-North train derailed while barreling into a sharp curve at nearly three times the speed limit is fueling questions about whether automated crash-avoidance technology could have prevented the carnage.

Safety officials have championed what’s known as positive train control technology for decades, but the railroad industry has sought to postpone having to install it because of the high cost and technological issues.

PHOTOS: Metro-North Train Derailment

As CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider reported Tuesday night, former Federal Railroad Administration investigator James Sottile was outraged about what he called a major oversight by Metro-North in not having implemented positive train control.

“These people did not have to die,” Sottile said.

He said speed control systems in place on the trains could have been activated years ago.

“Tomorrow is too late,” he said. “Install it.”

Investigators haven’t yet determined whether the weekend wreck, which killed four people and injured more than 60 others, was the result of human error or mechanical trouble. But many other safety experts have also said the tragedy might not have happened if Metro-North had the technology, and a senator said the derailment underscored the need for it.

“This incident, if anything, heightens the importance of additional safety measures, like that one,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., which also is served by Metro-North. “I’d be very loath to be more flexible or grant more time.”

Earl Weener, a board member with the National Transportation Safety Board, said Tuesday afternoon that while human error cannot be “eradicated,” positive train control may well have prevented the accident.

“Since this is a derailment involving a high-speed train, it’s possible that PTC could’ve prevented it,” he said.

The NTSB has been recommending the implementation of positive train control technology for 20 years, Weener said at a news conference.

“It’s absolutely critical,” said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

The lack of positive train technology on Metro-North trains was also mentioned in a news release announcing the first lawsuit in connection with the derailment.

“Why wasn’t PTC (Positive Train Control, a safeguard against excessive speed) installed in this locomotive? Would it have prevented this accident?” attorney Michael S. Lamonsoff said in a release announcing the suit on behalf of his client, Dr. Denise Williams, who was injured in the derailment.

The train was going 82 mph as it entered a 30 mph turn Sunday morning and ran off the track near the Spuyten Duyvil station, Weener said Monday. He cited information extracted from the train’s two data recorders; investigators also began interviewing the train’s crew.

“At this point in time, we can’t tell” whether the answer is faulty brakes or a human mistake, Weener said. But the focus has been on human error, amid revelations by a union official that engineer William Rockefeller “nodded” or “zoned out” shortly before the accident.

The speed stunned officials.

“I gulped. It sort of takes your breath away,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “For a train to be going 82 mph around that curve is just a frightening thought.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the NTSB findings make it clear “extreme speed was a central cause” of the derailment and vowed to “make sure any responsible parties are held accountable” after investigators determine why the train was going so fast.

Weener sketched a scenario suggesting that the throttle was let up and the brakes were fully applied way too late to stave off the crash.

He said the throttle went to idle six seconds before the derailed train came to a complete stop “very late in the game” for a train going that fast and the brakes were fully engaged five seconds before the train stopped.

It takes about a quarter-mile to a half-mile to stop a train going 82 mph, according to Kevin Thompson, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman.

Weener said Tuesday that the agency had examined data from each station stop around the route, and there were no anomalies in brake performance. He said other data, such as surveillance videos, were still being examined.

Weener would not disclose what investigators know about the engineer’s version of events. He did say all of the breath alcohol tests conducted on the engineer and crew came back negative, while other substance tests were still pending.

Investigators are also examining the engineer’s cellphone; engineers are allowed to carry cellphones but prohibited from using them during a train’s run.

Positive train control is designed to forestall the human errors that cause about 40 percent of train accidents, and uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or going the wrong way.

The system works by using antennas and train signals to monitor the train’s location and speed.

If a train is on course to collide with another train or going too fast on a curve, PTC will warn the engineer. If they fail to react, the system will react automatically.

The transportation safety board has urged railroads to install PTC in some form since 1970, and after a 2005 head-on collision killed 25 people near Los Angeles, Congress in 2008 ordered rail lines to adopt the technology by December 2015.

Automatic braking systems have been installed on rails throughout the northeast, including on parts of the Long Island Rail Road and on all of the NJ TRANSIT lines.

New York City subways have a different safety system.

But at a cost nationwide of $10 billion, most transit systems aren’t on track to meet the federal deadline.

“The government spends huge amounts of money on highway and aviation and tends to neglect the railroads,” said Capon.

Metro-North has taken steps toward acquiring PTC but, like many rail lines, has advocated for a few more years to implement a costly system that railroads say presents technological and other hurdles.

The MTA released a statement on PTC on Tuesday evening:

“The MTA began work to install Positive Train Control on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad in 2009. To date, the MTA has budgeted nearly $600 million for elements of PTC installation, including a $428 million procurement last month for a system integrator. Full implementation is estimated to cost $900 million, and the MTA will make sure the appropriate funding is made to implement PTC on the most aggressive schedule possible.

“However, implementing PTC by the 2015 deadline will be very difficult for the MTA as well as for other commuter railroads, as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both concluded. Much of the technology is still under development and is untested and unproven for commuter railroads the size and complexity of Metro-North and LIRR, and all of the radio spectrum necessary to operate PTC has not been made available. The MTA will continue its efforts to install PTC as quickly as possible, and will continue to make all prudent and necessary investments to keep its network safe.”

The MTA has advocated for an extension to 2018, saying it’s difficult to install such a system across more than 1,000 rail cars and 1,200 miles of track.

“It’s not a simple, off-the-shelf solution,” Anders said Monday.