By Noel T. Braymer
There has been a great deal of media attention on Amtrak and its fatal accidents that have happen in the last few years. These accidents were preventable and should never have happened. But fatal accidents still happen all the time often for no other reason than human error. Passenger train crashes often look terrible and invoke strong emotions with the public. An article in USA Today published on May 13, 2015 gave perspective of the level of dangers to passengers riding on Amtrak. This article pointed out that 158 Amtrak passengers died between 1975 to 2015. That’s an average of roughly 4 passenger deaths a year during this time. Several of these deaths were from passengers falling or jumping off from moving trains. This USA Today article also pointed out that during this time period between 1975 to 2015, Amtrak was involved with a total of 3,744 deaths. Just 4% of these deaths were with passengers. This article published in 2015 pointed out that for 2014 of 119 Amtrak related deaths, 108 were from people trespassing on the tracks.
The reality is people are more interested in something unusual or rare than something that happens almost every day. Fatal train crashes with passengers are rare, but makes a great deal of news when they happen. But there are news stories every week about people being killed driving on a grade crossing with warning bells and flashing lights working or people walking on the tracks wearing ear phones listening to music or talking on the phone with someone. These news stories of people dying walking or driving on the tracks rarely are major stories and are usually just background noise because they are so common.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been progress. Operation Lifesavers has been tracking deaths and injuries along the railroads and providing the public with information to avoid and prevent injuries and deaths on the track. It boils down to stay off the tracks. If you must cross the tracks, do so at a grade crossing with warning lights and bells. The good news is the number of deaths and injuries have come down compared with the past. With data from the Federal Railroad Administration, in 1982 there were 7,932 collisions, 607 fatalities and 2,637 injuries. By 2016 there were 2,025 collisions, 265 fatalities and 798 injuries. These numbers fluctuate from year to year, but the overall trend is an ongoing reduction in collisions, fatalities and injuries.
Major reasons for these improving numbers are improved public awareness of the dangers at grade crossings, construction of grade separations at busy crossings and improved grade crossing protection. A good example of this are grade crossing upgrades required to establish a “quiet zone” along a rail line. With the right grade crossing improvements there is no need for train operators to have to blow the train’s horns at every grade crossing if the line has been upgraded to “quiet zone” standards. These improvements usually include a raised median in the middle of the road to discourage drivers from driving around down crossing gate by driving in the wrong lane. Quiet zone crossings often have 4 instead of 2 crossing gates to seal off the crossing to block cars from crossing the tracks with an approaching train. This includes senors to prevent cars from being trapped between gates when the gates come down. The gate behind the car will come down. But the gate in front of the car will stay open until the car clears the crossing before being lowered. Such improvements are much cheaper than grade separation , but have greatly reduced the number of grade crossing accidents and deaths.
There is much Amtrak and other rail passenger carriers can do to reduce the number of accidents on the railroad at no cost. Avoiding accidents saves lives and money.
First off, Amtrak needs to insure that its safety procedures are followed. The crash in Chester, PA in 2016 was caused by not following established safety procedures. The change in shift of the dispatchers included the failure by the night shift to inform the morning shift that the track where the accident happened was out of service. Another glaring safety violation was the lack a simple cable which the maintenance of way crew was suppose to have and didn’t. Connecting this cable to the track being worked on would have put a red block on the tracks they were working on and prevented the accident.
Another problem with Amtrak and many commuter railroads are health conditions effecting crew members. Sleep apnea is a condition when a person has trouble breathing at night and fails to get proper sleep. There have been fatal train accidents where the operator reported no memories of what happened moments before the crash. It is likely these operators fell asleep just before the crash. Improved health screening and treatment would help prevent these problems. Another factor is training. After the recent Amtrak crash in Washington State the train operators reported that they hadn’t been given enough time to learn the new route they were on. Few had time to see much of the right of way because much of their training was at night or in crowed locomotive cabs were many trainees couldn’t see out a window. More training could be done using simulators which allows airlines pilots to learn from their mistakes. No need to use full scale cabs for this training. Using laptop commuters, gaming software companies could write software for training purposes for much less money to train and educate crew members about a route or how to deal with problems in the course of the day.