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Technology helps reduce railroad risks

rail yard

The general implementation of positive train control, technology intended to stop trains before accidents can occur, will significantly reduce railroads liability but is not a cure-all, experts warn.

The Federal Railroad Authority announced in December that PTC systems — designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed-caused derailments, incursions into established work zones and train movements through switches left in the wrong position — have been widely adopted. 

The agency said the technology was in operation in all 57,536 required freight and passenger railroad route miles prior to the Dec. 31, 2020, statutory deadline set forth by Congress.

But the process took awhile. President George W. Bush signed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required PTC systems to be fully implemented by Dec. 31, 2015, on main lines with regularly scheduled inter-city or commuter rail passenger service. The deadline was twice extended, first to Dec. 31, 2018, then to year-end 2020. 

John Anderson, deputy general counsel at Metra, the Chicago-area commuter rail system, said the technology would have prevented a 2005 Metra train derailment in Chicago due to “the engineer’s lack of attention and speeding” in which two people were killed and 200 injured. 

Mr. Anderson said PTC also may have prevented Amtrak derailments in Philadelphia and Washington state in 2015 and 2017, respectively, that were attributed to excess speed. 

“It’s certainly a step in the right direction insofar as improving safety measures, but it’s new technology,” said David Adamczyk, New York-based executive vice president of U.S. railroad for Aspen Insurance Holdings Ltd. “We’re just going to monitor what’s happening out there with PTC, and hopefully it does everything that has been talked about that it will do, but at this point it’s wait and see.”

“There are still some misconceptions about PTC,” said Daniel Bancroft, New York-based North American transportation practice leader for Willis Towers Watson PLC. “The greatest one I see is the misconception that trains can go faster now, so we can have fewer trains” and need fewer railcars, which “is not really true.”

“PTC was installed for safety purposes, not necessarily productivity improvement, and so I think underwriters are happy to see that,” he said. In the past, underwriters had to worry whether, if commuter and freight railroads shared a track, one was compliant with PTC and the other not, and that concern now “goes away in large part,” he said.

While PTC is helpful, it doesn’t fix every problem Metra might encounter, Mr. Anderson said.

PTC can be effective for such things as controlling a train’s speed or preventing it from moving from one track to another because of a switch misalignment. “But what it won’t control is, if a truck gets stuck at a grade crossing” or if a pedestrian is on the track, Mr. Anderson said. 

One major problem remaining in the industry is accidents that occur along railroad rights-of-way and at railroad crossings. A Federal Railroad Administration study released in December found a motorist is 40 times more likely to be killed in a vehicle-train accident than in any other type of highway collision. It said there were 18,289 vehicle-train collisions between 2008 and 2017, resulting in 2,250 fatalities and more than 8,000 injuries.

The study said an investigation of more than 9,000 crossings “revealed that most drivers did not visually scan for trains and did not prepare to stop, regardless of the type of warning device present and the crossing or the environmental conditions at the time of transversal.”

It said a better understanding of driver behavior at crossings, which could be helped through machine learning and artificial intelligence, would help predict situations where drivers are less cautious and could be at risk of accidents.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, as of 2017, rail crossings were about evenly divided between those that have active warning devices, including flashing lights and gates that descend as a train approaches, and those with passive devices, such as stop signs and “crossbucks,” which are X-shaped warning signs. 

Railroad crossings are an issue “because there’s a lot of moving parts,” within some instances a municipality owning the crossings and in others the railroad owning them and being responsible for their upkeep and maintenance, said Kevin Woods, Monroe, Louisiana-based national director for rail services at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. 

“You’re talking about a pretty expensive conversation” when it comes to installing fully operational crossings, he said. 

Mr. Anderson said grade crossings designs and the types of safety devices used have improved significantly, including fail-safe mechanical devices that prevent crossings. 

Mr. Adamczyk said railroads have done an effective job informing communities on this issue, but there are always “going to be people who always are going to take a chance to go around those crossings or gates or blow through the lights and try to beat the train.”

“It’s a dangerous situation, but I don’t know how you can change human nature,” he said.

“There are situations where railroads have been sued for accidents at crossings even where they have complied with local ordinances and requirements. There is coverage for these claims within the railroad policy, of course, subject to policy terms and conditions,” Mr. Adamczyk said.

Fred Millar, an Arlington, Virginia-based independent transportation consultant, said he would like to see trains be required to have electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, which can stop them at shorter distances.

Effective in September 2018, the Department of Transportation repealed a 2015 rule requiring the installation of the advanced braking systems on tank cars that carry explosive fuels, based on its determination that the costs “would exceed three-fold the benefits it would produce,” according to the department.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was among those who objected to the repeal, calling it “absolutely unacceptable” because of safety concerns.


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