What is the issue?
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.
What can be done . . .
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 by 2015, as of March 9, 2011, 10,000 miles of track were exempt from this mandate—which is a troubling fact. The Federal Railroad Administration accident database for 2011 attributes human factors issues as causal to most train collisions. Ninety-six head-on, rear-end, and side collision accidents occurred in 2011, and 83 percent of those accidents were determined to be caused by human factors. Positive train control can provide the critical redundancy to compensate for human error.
- Railroad Accident Report: Collision and Derailment of Maryland Rail Commuter MARC Train 286 and National Railroad Passenger Corporation AMTRAK Train 29, Silver Spring, Maryland, February 16, 1996
- Railroad Accident Report: Derailment of Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Train 519, Chicago, Illinois, October 12, 2003
- Railroad Accident Report: Collision of Two CN Freight Trains, Anding, Mississippi, July 10, 2005
- Railroad Accident Report: Collision Between Two Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Green Line Trains, Newton, Massachusetts, May 28, 2008
- Railroad Accident Report: Collision of Metrolink Train 111 with Union Pacific Freight Train LOF65-12, Chatsworth, California, September 12, 2008
- Railroad Accident Report: Collision of BNSF Coal Train With the Rear End of Standing BNSF Maintenance-of-Way Equipment Train, Read Oaks, Iowa, April 17, 2011
- Board Meeting: Collision of BNSF Coal Train With the Rear End of Standing BNSF Maintenance-of-Way Equipment Train, Red Oak, Iowa, April 17, 2011 (April 24, 2012)
- Board Meeting: Collision of Metrolink Train 111 with Union Pacific Freight Train LOF65-12, Chatsworth, California, September 12, 2008 (January 21, 2010)
- Board Meeting: Collision Between Two Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Green Line Trains, Newton, Massachusetts, May 28, 2008 (July 14, 2009)
- Board Meeting: Collision of Two CN Freight Trains, Anding, Mississippi, July 10, 2005 (March 20, 2007)
- Board Meeting: Derailment and Collision of MARC Commuter Train with Amtrak Capitol Limited in Silver Spring, Maryland, February 16, 1996 (June 17, 1997)
* This is not a comprehensive list of all reports and events related to this issue.