Trains are a part of daily life, whether transporting passengers or cargo. But we do not have to accept train accidents as a given, particularly those involving head-on collisions. Such collisions are often due to human factors, such as fatigue, sleeping disorders, use of medications, and distractions. Fatigue played a role in a July 2005 train collision in Anding, Mississippi, that killed all four operators. In May 2008 in Newton, Massachusetts, the operator of a transit train was killed after she fell into a microsleep and her train collided with another train. And once again, in April 2011 near Red Oak, Iowa, fatigue was the issue when two trains collided, killing two crew members.
Although human error cannot be eradicated, there is technology capable of supplementing the human operation of trains—positive train control. Such systems provide a safety redundancy by slowing or stopping a train that is not being operated in accordance with signal systems and operating rules, as was the case in every accident listed above. Positive train control prevents train-to-train collisions and overspeed derailments. For years, it has been in place on Amtrak trains in the Northeast, but for positive train control to reach its greatest safety potential, it must be implemented on all passenger and freight trains. With this technology, even if the train operator has fallen asleep or is distracted in some way, human lives will not be at risk.
Although legislation enacted in the aftermath of the Chatsworth, California, collision mandated positive train control systems for certain railroad lines by 2015, as of March 9, 2011, 10,000 miles of these tracks were exempt from this mandate-which is a troubling fact. Since 2005, the NTSB has investigated 15 accidents in which 50 people were killed and 942 people were injured. In each of these accidents, the NTSB concluded that PTC would have provided critical redundancy that would have prevented the accident.
* This is not a comprehensive list of all reports and events related to this issue.