Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A third of U.S. train crashes are caused by human error, even though technology exists to make rail passengers much safer. Why doesn’t New Jersey Transit have it?
At least one person is dead and 108 are injured following a commuter train crash inside the Hoboken Terminal Thursday morning. The New Jersey Transit train struck the building around 8:45 AM, running “over the bumper block, through the depot,” and stopping at a wall just short of the station’s waiting area, an agency employee who witnessed the event told reporters. The train’s first car was heavily damaged, as was the station itself: Videos of the incident’s aftermath show wires dangling from the ceiling, water pouring down, and metal beams collapsed on the ground.
The cause of the crash is unknown at this stage; the National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation. In a press conference this afternoon, officials stressed that there was no reason yet to consider it anything other than an accident.
But the details of the incident may sound familiar: Just last year, an Amtrak train traveling twice the speed limit derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injured 200 more. The cause, determined one year later, was an engineer whose attention had been distracted by radio traffic. In 2013, another engineer nodded off at the controls of a Manhattan-bound commuter train, which crashed in the Bronx, killing four and injuring 61. In 2008, a Metrolink commuter train in Chatsworth, California collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train after the Metrolink engineer blew through a red-light signal, his attention diverted by text messages. Twenty-five people were killed.
Every one of those incidents, the NTSB later determined, would have been prevented by a technology called Positive Train Control. Widely used across rail networks in Europe (though not everywhere, as recent crashes in Switzerland and Spain have shown), PTC gathers information on train location, speed limits, and track configurations shared by different rail providers, and can predict potential conflicts. If an engineer fails to react when a problem arises, PTC can remotely slam the brakes.
Currently, human error accounts for more than one-third of U.S. train crashes. PTC should be able to stop most such incidents. The NTSB has estimated that it would have prevented 145 accidents going back to 1969, saving 288 lives and protecting nearly 6,600 from injuries.
So where was PTC this morning in Hoboken? It’s not like policymakers have never thought about this. The 2008 Chatsworth collision prompted Congress to pass a bill requiring all rail providers to implement PTC by the end of 2015. Although some rail systems nationwide acted quickly—Amtrak was a leader, in spite of congressional funding cuts—the majority missed that deadline. As my colleague Kriston Capps reported last year, that was partly because of logistical and technical challenges, but largely because the PTC bill was essentially an unfunded mandate: With virtually no federal support—and in the midst of a recession—many rail providers were struggling to keep up other crucial rail maintenance and pushed back PTC implementation further and further. Earlier this year, the deadline was changed to 2018.
Some railroads are slowly but steadily equipping locomotives, towers, and tracks with transponders and GPS units. But more safety upgrades haven’t even left the station. An interactive table on the Federal Railroad Administration’s website shows PTC status for all U.S. railroads from August 2016. By that accounting, New Jersey Transit—the railroad on which Thursday’s crash occurred—has made no progress on adopting the technology. Nor has a single one of its employees been trained to use it. A recent status report for the NJT states that it “has had a contractor on board for several years" and that it has done "partial testing over the course of the past year" on two prototype vehicles.
Could this morning’s fatal incident have been prevented by PTC? It’s too early to tell. But it is clear is that, logistical, technical, and managerial challenges aside, railroads need financial support to install this long-overdue and well-proven life-saving technology. Depending on what NTSB determines about the Hoboken crash, perhaps Congress will finally decide to provide it.