Archive for December, 2015

The Oxnard Derailment

On February 24th, a Metrolink train struck a pickup truck that was hauling an empty trailer. Normally such a collision would be no big deal. But in this instance, the train derailed spectacularly, with passenger cars strewn about. Dozens of passengers were injured and the train engineer was killed.

This scenario wasn’t supposed to happen. Metrolink had spared no expense in building new trains to meet the latest FRA safety specifications. The Hyundai-built train was equipped with crumple zones, and special couplers to keep trains aligned and upright in a derailment. None of these supposed safety features functioned as expected. An internal report blames shoddy workmanship:

The confidential report states that the manufacturer failed to meet design specifications that Metrolink required for cow-catchers on cab cars. The unmet specifications related to struts that extended into the car body and a requirement that cow-catchers be able to withstand a load of 100,000 pounds. The document noted that the specifications “may need to be more robust.”

In addition, the report stated that the cow-catcher had some poor welds and that other parts of the device “showed probable failure” despite extra brackets and good welding in other places. A photo attached to the report shows that the cow-catcher had broken off the cab car. Arrows point to four weld failures and areas where bolts were sheared off.

According to the report, a metallurgist found that one of the two failed couplers displayed evidence of a manufacturing defect known as porosity — a casting flaw that causes voids and bubbles to form in the metal.

Not to defend Hyundai, but the real problem isn’t poor quality control, but rather bad train design, and Buy-America trade-protectionism. There are any number of overseas manufacturers who could have sold Metrolink a service-proven trainset. But because Metrolink isn’t allowed to buy trains overseas, Hyundai had to create a whole new facility in the US, and set up a domestic parts stream. That is a complicated endeavor. And the trains themselves are of a custom design, largely dreamed up by government bureaucrats. It is no wonder the Metrolink train is defective.

The most distressing part of this fiasco, though, is the failed coupler. Most newer regional/commuter trains don’t even have couplers, because the world has moved on to articulated trains. Articulated trains have many benefits — one of which is that they are much less prone to jackknifing in derailments. But US rail planners continue to oppose the use of articulated trains, for truly baffling reasons.


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When a celebrity crashes a plane, or is rear-ended by a truck, the NTSB will make a thorough investigation. But for the thousands of pedestrians and cyclists killed and injured each year, the NTSB has no interest in researching the cause of the collision.

A review of this year’s archive of accident recommendations shows the NTSB made dozens of recommendations for aviation, railroads, pipelines, and highways. But there is nothing related to non-motorized road users.

In fact, the last time the NTSB looked at a bike or ped issue was way back in the year 1972. Apparently, the NTSB believes the US has the most perfect infrastructure for bikes and peds.

When Congress created the NTSB, the purpose was to provide outside, independent guidance to transport planners. And since traffic engineers have such a huge blind spot for bikes and peds, one would think that a Vision-Zero policy would be the top high priority for the NTSB. Unfortunately, there is nobody at the agency, either at the staff or Board level, that seems to have any awareness of the issue.

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If dieselgate were a Hollywood movie, there would be scenes of police raiding the corporate headquarters and hauling off evidence. Managers and CEO’s would be brought in for questioning. Real life isn’t anything like that — the corporation gets to investigate itself:

While the internal audits will be finished by the end of this month, the law firm Jones Day is doing its own independent investigation going through emails and 102 TB of data partly gained from the laptops, mobile phones, sim cards and flash drives of 400 VW employees who may or may not be involved. So far, they’ve completed 87 interviews and 9 managers got suspended, but it’ll be a while until VW’s 450 investigators build the case and find out exactly who were responsible at each level of the decision making process.

Shouldn’t those laptops and flash drives be in the hands of prosecutors?

And so far, the company is sticking to its story that this was a just very tiny group of engineers that went rogue. Interesting how they can already come to that conclusion when the “investigation” has barely started…

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Highway interchanges are perhaps the most dangerous place to ride a bike. You have high-speed merges going on where drivers are not expecting to find cyclists or pedestrians. Traffic engineers often make the problem worse with idiotic striping. For example, this bike lane in Orinda running between a double right-hand freeway on-ramp (Streetsblog called it the Worst Bike Lane in World):


And then there is this death trap in Colorado Springs:


There are a couple problems here. The first is that traffic engineers keep “upgrading” major arterial roads into freeways, converting ordinary intersections into interchanges. The second problem is that Federal design standards are completely outdated for bike accommodation at highway interchanges.

This shouldn’t be a hard problem, because Dutch cycle planners figured out the solution a long time ago:


That is a pretty standard interchange configuration in Holland. The signalization allows for cyclists to cross the offramp, without having to worry about high-speed car traffic.

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