Calls from lawmakers are mounting to speed up implementation of GPS technology to help prevent train accidents. The most recent incident was a fatal crash Sunday in South Carolina. And there is renewed attention on rail crossing safety after last week’s collision involving a train taking GOP congressional members to a West Virginia retreat.
Federal investigators are on the ground in Cayce, South Carolina, where an Amtrak train slammed into a freight train early Sunday, killing a conductor and an engineer. More than a hundred people were injured. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt told reporters that a switch was in the wrong position and that a GPS-based system called positive train control could have prevented the crash. The system keeps track of the location of all trains and the positions of all switches to prevent the kind of human error that can put two trains on the same track.
And separately, an investigator says an Amtrak train was traveling around the speed limit only seconds before it slammed into a trash truck at a rural rail crossing in Virginia. The train was taking GOP members of Congress to a retreat in West Virginia when it collided with the truck January 31. One man on the truck was killed. Six people were injured.
A bill was introduced in Congress in January that would speed up the implementation of positive train control, or PTC. New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat from the 18th district, is a co-sponsor.
“This is exactly what typically happens. You have a vehicle stuck on a crossing or people someplace they shouldn’t be,” says Maloney. “We can prevent these accidents. We can prevent it with simple technologies like motion sensors linked to positive train control so that trains stop automatically and we know when something is in the way.”
The Positive Train Control Implementation and Financing Act was introduced following a fatal train derailment in December in Washington State. Maloney says the bill would prevent further delays of the December 31, 2018 deadline for implementing PTC and provide more than $2.5 billion in funding to assist passenger railroads in implementing the technology by the deadline.
Republican New York Congressman John Faso of the neighboring 19th district was on the train en route to the retreat.
“About 20 miles outside of Charlottesville, we had a, heard a sudden crash, a jolt in the train. The train stopped within about 10 seconds,” said Faso. “And, quickly, we realized the train had hit a vehicle, a truck carrying a load of garbage. It looked like it was in a tractor-trailer type arrangement.”
Plus, he said.
“So we don’t know what the cause of the accident was,” said Faso. “Was the truck trying to beat the train? Was there an improper signal? I don’t really know.”
NTSB investigators are working to figure out what happened. Maloney authored a law that helps states and local communities improve safety around rail-grade crossings.
“I passed legislation in 2015 to provide 90 percent of the funding for grade crossing safety improvements from the federal government,” Maloney says. “Those funds are available right now to clean up these grade crossings. We’ve got some in the Hudson Valley that are accidents waiting to happen.”
The Highway-Rail Grade Crossings Safety Act of 2015 was signed as part of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.
“We’re going to go back to work to make sure that local communities are aware of this funding that I helped put in place,” says Maloney. “And this is just a vivid example of how we are continuing to lose lives when we don’t have to.”
The Hudson Valley area has seen its own fatal train crashes in recent years. In December 2013, there was a fatal Metro-North derailment in the Bronx neighborhood of Spuyten Duyvil. And in February 2015, a Metro-North commuter train crashed into an SUV that was stopped on the tracks at a crossing in Valhalla, killing five people on the train. The car’s driver also was killed.
After the South Carolina crash, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal tweeted, quote, “Positive train control implementation to America’s railroads must be made safer. Proven technology like Positive Train Control cannot continue to be delayed. On safety, business as usual must end.”
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