A brief look at recent train crashes

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In recent years, there has been an increase in train crashes in the U.S., specifically those involving Amtrak passenger trains. In the last three months alone, there have been three fatal crashes. The causes of the crashes include operator error and miscommunication. However, there are policy suggestions that could reduce future collisions.

On Feb. 4, 2018 an Amtrak train traveling from New York to Miami crashed into a freight train and derailed in South Carolina. One hundred and forty-seven people were on board at the time of the crash. The train collided with an empty CSX freight car. At the time of the crash, the signal system normally used, which is run by a private railroad company, was out of order, so dispatchers at CSX were manually routing trains. The CSX freight car is believed to have been on the proper railway, and the Amtrak passenger train was on the incorrect track. The conductor and an engineer were killed in the crash and 116 people were hospitalized. This crash is attributed to human error in train path routing.

Five days before the South Carolina crash, Jan. 31, 2018, an Amtrak train carrying Republican lawmakers to an annual retreat crashed into a garbage truck that was stuck on the train tracks 12 miles west of Charlottesville, Va. One truck passenger was killed in the accident. The driver and another passenger, along with five passengers and staff on the Amtrak train, sustained injuries. Physicians aboard the train tended to the injured before emergency medical services arrived. The crash is under investigation, and the causes are unknown.

On Dec. 18, 2017, an Amtrak train derailed during its inaugural journey from Seattle to Portland. The train plunged off a bridge, leaving several hanging in the air and only one still on the tracks. The conductor’s inattentiveness caused the accident. He failed to slow down before rounding a turn, which led to the derailment. Three people were killed in the accident and 23 were injured. Before this new, faster route was put into place, Lakewood mayor Don Anderson predicted such an outcome.

Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” Anderson said.

These recent crashes have increased worries about potential causes. Two crashes at the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017 have been attributed to obstructive sleep apnea, which can cause detrimental drowsiness. The Obama administration had been drafting requirements for train operators to undergo testing and treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. However, the Trump administration has rolled back these requirements, instead stating that private companies should institute their own procedures. Aviation departments have already implemented similar requirements. There is no significant political push to revive such requirements for train operators, but the National Transportation Safety Board recommends individual operator companies put their own screening processes into place.

To address potential distractedness in train operators, there is a push for the implementation of Positive Train Control technology. Such technology will implement an automatic braking technology in the case of emergencies. If the technology determines the train is moving too quickly, the brakes will automatically release. After the crashes so far this year, there has been bipartisan support to increase the speed with which this technology must be implemented. The deadline is the end of this year.

Such regulations were not previously in place because of pushback to complaints of government overreach and lack of political motivation to implement them. Amtrak is a for-profit company that is also supported by government funding for infrastructure, so government safety regulations will be funded by the federal government.

Photo courtesy of CNBC.

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