The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued its list of most pressing transportation safety concerns, including issues affecting trains, automobiles, planes, boats, and buses. Topping the list of most-wanted safety improvements involving trains is positive train control, a system that safety experts tout as vastly improving train safety but that has not yet been fully implemented by US railways. The longer it takes railroads to implement positive train control, however, the higher the risk of serious injuries to passengers and crewmembers in train accidents.
NTSB Cites Positive Train Control in Most-Wanted Improvements List
The NTSB’s list of most-wanted safety improvements is the organization’s primary tool to advocate for improved transportation safety. The agency uses it to highlight gaps in safety measures and processes, recommend improvements and suggest ways that government, industry stakeholders and the community can take part in improving safety. Since 1990, the NTSB has issued the list of safety improvements plus specific safety recommendations to support those changes.
Although many of the improvements cover various modes of transportation—eliminating distractions, for example, covers aviation, highway, marine, and railroad transportation—some are highly specific. The 2019-2020 list recommends having railroads fully implement positive train control.
According to the NTSB, in recent years positive train control could have prevented numerous railroad crashes, some of them fatal. That is because positive train control (also known as PTC) is a collision-avoidance technology that can take control of and stop a train before it derails or hits an obstacle. The technology, which includes sensors and software on trains and along the tracks, can slow down a speeding train or prevent it from running along the wrong tracks and colliding with another train.
The system first sends a warning to the engineer that the train must be slowed or stopped, and if the engineer does not respond PTC takes over and stops the train.
Railways Missed PTC Deadline
Congress first mandated positive train control after a deadly railroad crash in Chatsworth, California, in 2008. At the time, affected railroads were given until the end of 2015 to implement the system fully. Congress then extended the deadline to Dec. 31, 2018, but still few railroads fully implemented Positive Train Control.
In fact, only four rail systems met the Dec. 31, 2018, deadline: North County Transit District, Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp. (PATH), Portland & Western Railroad, and Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink). Other railroads have partially implemented PTC, but not entirely. Railroads who meet the requirements for the alternative schedule now have a deadline of 2020, the third deadline for them to implement the system.
The NTSB says enough is enough.
“Since Congress issued its original 2015 deadline to install PTC, we have investigated many PTC-preventable accidents, including the December 18, 2017, derailment of an Amtrak train in DuPont, Washington, in which three passengers died,” the agency writes. [please post in slightly larger font.]
As a result, the agency argues that the extended deadline for railroads to fully implement PTC must be met, with no further extensions granted, noting that the safety of passengers, crews and people who live and work near railroads depends on PTC being properly installed.
The NTSB calls on all railroads to implement positive train control immediately and not request further extensions while also asking regulators to deny any further extensions.
NTSB Calls for Other Train-Related Improvements
Although positive train control is one of the primary safety improvements related to trains that the NTSB would like to see, it is not the only one. The agency also lists eliminating distractions as a concern involving railroads. In its write-up, the NTSB notes that engaging in tasks not related to operating a train leads to crashes, including the 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia that killed 8 people and injured 200 others.
Eliminating Distractions for Train Operators
Among the main distractions train operators face is the use of portable electronic devices, such as a tablet, a laptop, a smartphone, an e-reader or a MP3 player. Unfortunately, many people believe that they can multitask by using portable electronic devices and operating a train—or another mode of transportation—safely. This, the NTSB says, is a myth. It is impossible to put cognitive attention on more than one thing at a time and attempting to do so leads to crashes.
Screening and Treating Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Rail Crews
The NTSB also notes that undiagnosed and untreated obstructive sleep apnea is deadly for railways because of the extreme fatigue apnea causes. That tiredness can result in train operators and crew working in an unsafe manner or making errors that they might not have otherwise made. The NTSB recommends medically screening employees for sleep apnea and sleep disorders and enhancing medical standards by identifying conditions that could prevent workers from having positions that are “safety sensitive.”
Reducing Fatigue-Related Train Accidents
Related to sleep apnea is the risk of fatigue-related accidents, which includes any train crash linked to insufficient sleep or sleep that is poor in quality. Obstructive sleep apnea is one cause of fatigue, but simply not getting enough sleep at night or having other issues that prevent a good night’s sleep can also cause fatigue. Unfortunately, fatigue puts the lives of railroad passengers at risk when an operator is too tired to perform his or her duties competently.
Until railroads and regulators recognize the urgency of these recommendations, the traveling public will still be at risk of serious, fatal accidents.