Sunday Train: Traveling to our deaths and the fatal Metro North derailment

Last Sunday Morning, the 5:45am from Poughkeepsie was running through the Bronx with 100-150 passengers aboard, when it sped through a 30mph speed limit curve at 82mph, derailed, over-turning four cars and killing four people.

This is a story with some differences in detail from the Spanish fatal derailment this summer, but one common feature: the lack of adequate Positive Train Control signaling on the corridor. In the Spanish case, project cost-shaving led to Positive Train Control signaling being installed on the new High Speed Rail corridor but not on connecting corridors that some hybrid services use to reach towns not directly on the HSR corridor. In the Spanish case, full PTC would not have been required to prevent the fatal accident: 'The Santiago Train Derailment Could Have Been Prevented with a Euro 6,000 beacon'. As later details emerged it became clear that if two analog "ATSFA' beacons had been replaced with three digital 'ATSFA' beacons, at a cost of €6,000 each, that would have prevented the fatal derailment.

The Metro-North connecting from Poughkeepsie through the Bronx into Manhattan is slated to receive Positive Train Control, as required by current Federal Railway Authority policy, but as recounted by Alan Levy:

Metro-North and the LIRR have been trying to wrangle their way out of the PTC mandate, saying it offers “marginal benefits”; a year and a half ago, the New York Post used the word “outrageous” to describe the PTC mandate, saying it would cost over a billion dollars and that the money could go to capacity improvements instead, such as station parking. Lobbying on behalf of Metro-North and the LIRR, Senator Charles Schumer emphasis mine made sure to amend a proposed Senate transportation bill to give the railroads waivers until 2018, so that they could devote resources to more rush hour capacity from the outer suburbs (such as Ronkonkoma) to Manhattan and fewer to safety. According to Siemens, the work will actually take until 2019, and Siemens says it “has developed PTC specifically for the North American market,” in other words built a bespoke system instead of ETCS. (ACSES was developed by Alstom.)

And that is the top-line point: if we had been more serious and committed about putting PTC on the busiest passenger rail corridors in the country, this fatal derailment would not have occurred.

Its still safer than driving on America's Asphalt Death Traps

Another element that is common to this story is the fear that people will react to this safety failure by a rail service to switch to diary, when it seems as if any passenger railway that generated as many deaths per trip or per passenger mile as our highways do would likely have been shut down long ago. The NYC road death toll in 2012 included not only over a hundred motorists and passengers killed by driving, but also over a hundred pedestrians and cyclists annualy killed by driving.

While deaths of motorists and their passengers are trending down in much of the United States, it is trending down from a rate that would not be tolerated from other modes of transport. As I wrote back in July:

Just because we largely tolerate a mortality rate of 100 deaths per million people in the United States does not mean that we should tolerate 100 rail deaths per million people per year if rail travel took over the transport task presently performed by cars in the United States. Nor, if rail took over the current auto transport task, that we should tolerate the 10 rail deaths per million people per year that would represent a 90% reduction in risk of death in rail travel versus car travel.

The rate of carnage of automobile passenger transport is not merely higher than we ought to accept, one-tenth of the current rate of carnage is still higher than we ought to accept.

Indeed, as Yonah goes on to point out, in some countries, the safety record is substantially stronger:

Other countries' experience shows that high-speed rail can be even safer than the much slower U.S. trains. The bullet trains that zoom through France and Japan, for instance, testify to the astonishing safety offered by well-managed rail services. Each nation's system has been in operation for more than 30 years and provided billions of rides.

Yet thanks to advanced safety systems and extensive maintenance, no passengers -- zero -- have died as a result of a high-speed train crash in either country. ...

Safer than driving on America's Asphalt Death Traps is not good enough: rail can, and should, be made safer than any individually driven mode of transport on the public right of way can ever expect to be.

The Litany Of Excuses for Delaying PTC in New York

So, why the delay?

The piece by Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations, already quoted, is quite illuminating.

For PTC on the long mainline railroads that primarily handle freight that sometimes host passenger trains and/or hazardous materials (and the FRA is requiring PTC for freight corridors that either host passenger trains or carry hazardous materials, or both), the existing, established PTC system in Europe, ERTMS, might have higher capital requirements than a custom-designed system for US conditions.

However, this is clearly not true for the busy passenger rail corridors in the US. The already-implemented-and-tested European ERTMS system is easily capable of handling the level of passenger traffic that the busy rail corridors in the Northeastern US experience. The MTA claims that full implementation of its designed-for-the-US system will likely be about $900m ~ with the cost of the implementation increased by the need to increases the capacity of the system above that required in most other US corridors ~ at the cost of the ERTMS system installed in Denmark, the Metro North and Long Island Railroad could install PTC on all of their corridor (except Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, which is a separate project) for about $1.1b. And not only would this be technology available today, with the risks (and extensive delays) associated with development already past, but it would result in an increase in passenger train capacity throughout the system, since upgrading the signaling throughout the system will allow trains to run both more safely and more closely together.

As Alon points out:

This would also allow higher capacity than the current systems, which could squeeze more trains onto busy lines, so it wouldn’t be at the expense of capacity improvements. In particular, the LIRR could keep postponing the $1.5 billion Main Line third track to Hicksville project, and instead run trains on the currently double-track bidirectionally (today they run one-way at rush hour, to accommodate local and express service) using the very high frequency that ETCS permits. Another project, which Sen. Schumer thinks is more important than PTC, a $400 million plan to double-tracking the outer part of the Main Line from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma, could also be postponed while still providing the necessary capacity.

So the signal upgrade versus capacity expansion frame that Senator Schumer used to help successfully delay PTC implementation in the Metro North, with these fatal consequences, it itself entirely misleading. Upgrading to ERTMS signalling would result in the same capacity expansion at substantially lower cost. And if these projects were still required in the future, the investments would have a higher benefit to cost ratio, because with the ERTMS system already in place, the capacity upgrades would be able to support more rail service.

Conversations, Considerations and Contemplations

As always, rather looking for some overarching conclusion, I now open the floor to the comments of those reading.

If you have an issue on some other area of sustainable transport or sustainable energy production, please feel free to start a new main comment. To avoid confusion among those who might be tempted to yell "off topic!", feel free to use the shorthand "NT:" in the subject line when introducing this kind of new topic.

And if you have a topic in sustainable transport or energy that you want me to take a look at in the coming month, be sure to include that as well.

Finally, no need to introduce yourself first. Just jump in and start talking about sustainable transport and/or energy.





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