Could auto-stop system have averted NYC train crash?

Dec 3, 2013 7:15 AM

YONKERS, N.Y. (CBS/AP) - The revelation that a New York City commuter 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 deadly disaster.

National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said Monday that the Metro-North Railroad train was going 82 mph as it entered a 30 mph turn and derailed Sunday. Four people were killed and more than 60 others were injured.

Investigators haven't determined whether the cause was human error or mechanical trouble. Still, some safety experts say the tragedy might not have happened if Metro-North had what's called positive train control (PTC) technology.

The wreck came just two years before the federal government's deadline for Metro-North and other railroads to install the automatic-slowdown technology, which is designed to prevent catastrophic accidents. But with the cause of Sunday's wreck still unknown, it was not clear whether the technology would have made a difference.

Metro-North's parent agency and other railroads have pressed the government to extend the deadline a few years because of the cost and complexity of the positive train control technology, which uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor locomotives' position and speed and stop trains from colliding, derailing or going the wrong way.

"Assuming the braking system was working normally, this crash would not have happened" if a PTC system had been in place, said Grayd Cothen, a former safety official with the Federal Railroad Administration.

He said the system would probably have alerted the engineer to the speed of the train and the approaching curve, and if the engineer had failed to brake manually, the PTC would likely have forced the train to stop.

Another former FRA official, Steve Ditmeyer, echoed those remarks to NPR, telling the radio network "a properly installed PTC system would have prevented this train from crashing."

"If the engineer would not have taken control of slowing the train down, the PTC system would have," Ditmeyer told NPR.

The NTSB has been urging railroads for decades to install the technology. Congress in 2008 required dozens of railroads, including Metro-North, to install the PTC systems by 2015.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North, awarded $428 million in contracts in September to develop the system for Metro-North and its sister Long Island Rail Road. But the MTA has asked for an extension on the deadline to 2018, saying it faces technological and other hurdles in installing such a system across more than 1,000 rail cars and 1,200 miles of track.

"This incident, if anything, heightens the importance of additional safety measures, like that one," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, which is also served by Metro-North. "And speaking for myself, I'd be very loath to be more flexible or grant more time."

Margie Anders, a spokeswoman for Metro-North's parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said that the agency began planning for a PTC system as soon as the law was put into effect.

"It's not a simple, off-the-shelf solution," she said.


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