Week's rail wrecks fuel safety concerns

Anti-crash technology exists, but a strapped industry says it's too expensive.

Two fatal train accidents in less than a week – one in Florida, one in California – are focusing intense scrutiny on the nation's railroads.

America's railways are struggling with safety issues. Train- related fatalities are on the rise, after falling during most of the past decade. And as ridership increases in some areas and passenger trains speed up, the industry faces the thorny issue of how much of its limited resources to spend on safety upgrades.

The big dilemma: Who will pay for systems that will automatically stop or slow trains when the train crews make mistakes?

"It's a matter of economics," says Peter Swan, professor of business logistics at Penn State University. "It doesn't appear that the savings they get from reduced numbers of accidents provides sufficient return for investment."

An anxious week for railroads

A crew error resulted in four deaths last Thursday in Florida. Amtrak's popular auto train derailed after an engineer made an emergency stop. The engineer thought he saw misaligned rails ahead – but the tracks were fine.

Then in California on Tuesday, a freight train ran headlong into a commuter train, killing two and injuring some 260 others. Federal transportation investigators say the freight train should have gotten a signal to stop, giving the Metrolink train a chance to be diverted to another track.

Instead, the southbound Metrolink stopped on the tracks. Moments later, a northbound Burlington Northern Santa Fe train plowed into the Metrolink, hurling commuters from their seats and pushing the passenger train some 370 feet back.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the freight crew had applied the brakes, but the mile-long train couldn't stop in time.

The question facing railroads and regulators is what should be done to cut down on accidents. By far, the biggest cause of railroad fatalities is trains running into people or vehicles – not collisions with other trains. Every two hours, a train runs into a car, truck, or person on US tracks, according to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit railway safety group based in Alexandria, Va.

Train-to-train collisions, on the other hand, are rare. Last year, a collision killed one person, while accidents at railroad crossings cost 417 lives. People getting hit on the tracks added another 505 fatalities. In all, US trains caused an estimated 962 deaths last year – down 200 from the toll in 1992, but up from the low of 932 set in 1999.

It's not clear what has fueled the recent rise. Ridership on public transportation has jumped 23 percent in the past six years – and the privately owned Metrolink, of Tuesday's California crash, is one of the nation's fastest-growing commuter rails. On the other hand, recession has reduced demand for freight railroads.

Safety: a costly endeavor

Since the 1990s, the industry has been beefing up personnel to cut down on fatigue, says Professor Swan of Penn State. But freight railroads have not made as many capital improvements as they would like, thanks to thin profits.

For more than a decade, the NTSB has urged the industry to adopt positive train control (PTC). The system can automatically slow or stop trains – even if engineers have fallen asleep.

Some passenger trains, such as the New York Central, used a precursor of PTC back in the 1920s, when passenger trains were far more numerous.

Today, high-speed trains, such as Amtrak's Acela, use PTC. In Illinois, federal and state authorities have teamed with the Association of American Railroads to test it. But at an estimated cost of $3 billion to install nationwide, PTC doesn't have many backers among railroads. Neither cash-strapped Amtrak nor thinly- financed commuter services can afford it. Many freight companies are unenthusiastic.

"There's very few collisions to prevent," says Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.

Some experts believe the money would be better spent elsewhere, such as removing highway-railroad crossings. In terms of fatalities, "that's where the biggest elimination is going to come," says John Spychalski, another professor of business logistics at Penn State.

The road to change

But other safety experts argue that PTC makes sense.

Compared with the amounts spent for airline safety, "I don't regard these steps as being unreasonable," says Jim Burnett, a transportation-safety consultant in Clinton, Ark., and former NTSB chairman. After a fatal collision between an Amtrak train and three Conrail locomotives north of Baltimore in 1987, Mr. Burnett and the safety board urged Congress to require railroads to install PTC systems.

Congress held hearings, but the measure never came to pass. "If it's ever solved, it's because there's a very tragic accident and people rise up and say: 'No more!' " Mr. Burnett says. But, he adds, new railroad rules usually come about only when the federal government and railroads agree.

"Twenty years hence, we might need to make big decisions on investment in rail," says Swan of Penn State. "If [railroads'] profitability doesn't improve, they won't be able to maintain things as they are" in terms of safety.

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