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Posts Tagged ‘Metro-North’

Valhalla

The 5 victims in the horrific Metro-North collision in Valhalla will be listed in the official statistics as train fatalities — even though it was an automobile that killed them. Each year, there are tens of thousands of automobile fatalities, but for some reason, the NTSB only investigates crashes involving trains or other mass transit.

Based on previous work by the NTSB, one can expect their report to focus on accident survivability, not accident avoidance. The key question isn’t what role the 3rd rail played, or the design of the road — but why the grade crossing was even there in the first place?

The Commerce St. grade crossing has little traffic, and is located just 1 mile away from grade-separated crossings in both north and south directions. Closing the crossing to motor vehicles is the obvious solution. It would greatly increase safety, with only minor time penalty for motorists.

Metro-North has such a large number of crossings similar to this one that it begs the question as to why they are left open to motor vehicles. A systematic approach to closing minor at-grade crossings that are in close proximity to grade-separated roadways would greatly increase safety, with only minor impact on motor vehicles. Note that crossings could still be left open to bikes/peds, avoiding the “Berlin-Wall” effect. The reason this has not been done is because small inconveniences for motorists takes precedence over the safety of train passengers. Hopefully this latest tragedy will lead to a change in priorities.

And it is not a problem unique to Metro-North. In the SF Bay Area, the Caltrain line has a number of minor at-grade crossings that should be closed to motor vehicles. It is just dumb luck that Caltrain has not experienced a mass casualty event. And when the agency starts using EMU’s, you can be sure the knives will come out if one of those “dangerous” non-compliant trains were involved in a fatal accident.

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The investigation has just begun, but it is likely that the NTSB will find that the fatal Metro-North derailment was due to excessive speed. It is precisely the kind of accident that PTC would have prevented.

But the FRA has a different view. FRA Administrator Joe Szabo sent a blistering letter to the MTA complaining of unspecified problems in its safety culture:

The Federal Railroad Administration today called for mandatory safety retraining of Metro-North workers and the creation of a confidential reporting system that lets employees report safety concerns, according to a letter from the agency to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It directed MTA, which operates the railroad, to respond by Dec. 6. The MTA needs to show its employees “a serious, good faith commitment to the safe operation of the system and inform them of the steps that MTA will take to enhance safety in both the short- and long-term,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote in the letter to MTA Chief Executive Officer Thomas Prendergast.

At best, his letter is premature. At worst, it is disingenuous for trying to deflect blame from the FRA.

Historically, the FRA was opposed to PTC technology (until Congress intervened in 2008). Since that time, the FRA has botched the PTC implementation. Rather than pointing fingers, the FRA needs to answer why the PTC implementation is taking so long, despite being a turn-key technology.

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