Category Archives: Rail Safety

PTC, 50 Years After Darien

By Member Jennifer Homendy

Exactly 50 years ago today, two Penn Central commuter trains collided in Darien, Connecticut. Four people died and 43 others were injured. The collision led to our first recommendation related to positive train control (PTC). Today, I joined Senator Richard Blumenthal at a commemoration of the accident in New Haven. The senator and I share the same goal: to see PTC implementation completed.

In the past half century, we have investigated more than 150 PTC-preventable accidents that have taken the lives of more than 300 people and injured 6,700 others. PTC was on our first Most Wanted List in 1990, and it’s still on our Most Wanted List today.

In 2008, when it became clear that, even after a series of deadly crashes, the railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) weren’t going to voluntarily implement PTC, Congress took action and made PTC implementation mandatory. The railroads have made progress—albeit slowly—in the past 11 years. Some have almost fully implemented PTC, but others lag far behind. The deadline for PTC implementation was extended to the end of 2018; however, if a railroad met certain benchmarks, it could qualify for a 24-month extension. Nearly all railroads satisfied the criteria to extend the deadline, which is now set for December 31, 2020.

The December 2020 extended deadline is fast approaching, yet a lot of work remains to be done. Some railroads are still installing equipment—which is a task that should’ve been completed by now. Railroads should be providing ongoing PTC training and actively working toward interoperability with other railroads on their lines. They should be getting their safety plans to the FRA for final certification and approval. Although there is a lot to accomplish over the next 16 months, our message is simple: No more extensions, no more excuses, and no more delays. It’s time to finish the job!

From the day that President Kennedy urged America to put a person on the moon to the day that Neil Armstrong took those historic steps, it was only 8 short years. Think about that—8 years to get a human to the moon. Yet, it’s been 50 since the accident in Darien, and we still haven’t managed to get PTC up and running on our country’s rails.

As I stood in my native Connecticut today, I thought about the four people killed there on August 20, 1969, a half century ago. It’s been over a decade since Congress mandated PTC, and the traveling public is still at unnecessary risk. It’s time for the railroads to finish the job.

August 20, 2019 Press Event in New Haven, Connecticut
In this photo, taken August 20, 2019, at Union Station in New Haven, Connecticut, NTSB Member Jennifer Homendy is with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal at a press event to mark the fiftieth anniversary of a fatal train collision in Darien, Connecticut, and to call for the full implementation of Positive Train Control. NTSB photo by Stephanie Shaw

The Golden Spike at 150

By Member Jennifer Homendy

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). (Source: Wikimedia)

On May 10, 1869, 150 years ago today, a golden spike was driven home at Promontory Summit, in what was then the Utah Territory, by Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford. This momentous event joined the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, completing the first transcontinental railroad, just 7 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act authorizing land grants and government financing to US railroads for the purpose of joining the east and the west.

As we know, the project was a tremendous success, but it certainly had its challenges.

In 1863, another act established the gauge for the project at 4 ft., 8½ inches (which became the standard gauge). At the time, gauges varied among railways in the United States. The goal of the transcontinental railroad was to ensure that two railroads met in Utah and were “interoperable” when it came time to begin service. A small difference in width would mean no transcontinental railroad: passengers and freight would have to be offloaded to a new train when incompatible rails met, creating a bottleneck affecting thousands of miles of track.

It wouldn’t have inspired confidence in the transcontinental railroad if the four final spikes couldn’t be driven in because the railroad gauges didn’t match!

Leland Stanford, the man who drove the golden spike, went on to found Stanford University. He could not imagine the contributions to transportation that his namesake university would make, including those to the global positioning system used in positive train control (PTC) systems.

Just as the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads worked to ensure their track was seamless, today’s railroads are focused on implementing PTC by ensuring interoperability among many systems­—passenger, commuter, and freight trains must be able to seamlessly communicate and operate across all railroad networks.

PTC isn’t new. The NTSB has been urging railroads to implement it, in some form, since 1970, 1 year after the United States met President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon. Since then, the NTSB has investigated 152 PTC-preventable accidents that resulted in more than 300 fatalities and 6,700 injuries. PTC remains on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

Seven years passed between when Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862 to when the golden spike was driven home at Promontory Summit. Eight years passed from JFK’s speech to Congress about a moonshot in 1961 to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the gray dust of the lunar surface. PTC was mandated by Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. It has now been more than 10 years since the act was signed into law.

Today’s golden spike celebration might well feature photos of two locomotives posed head-to-head, as they were for the original golden spike celebration 150 years ago. Perhaps that would also be a fitting image to promote PTC, which, among other safety benefits, would automatically stop trains in time to prevent train-to-train collisions.

As we commemorate 1869’s golden spike, the NTSB continues to await implementation of fully operational PTC, which is long overdue. Let’s end the wait and start planning our own commemoration of the day we finally made all rail travel exponentially safer.

 

Add a Day of Remembrance for a Balanced Holiday Season

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Every year, I hear that the holiday season has gotten too long—that holiday music, commercials, and sales begin too early. Traditionally, the season starts on Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November.

 

I think the season should actually start even earlier this year—on the third Sunday in November, World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. Why? Because to truly give thanks for what we have, we have to imagine losing it. Around the world, about 1.3 million people lose their lives in automobile crashes every year; 20 to 50 million more survive a crash with injuries, many of which are life-altering. Here in the United States, annual traffic deaths number around 37,000—more than 100 a day—and a motor vehicle crash is the single most likely way for a teen to die.

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If you’ve lost somebody to a crash, you probably need no special reminder. Your loved one will be missed at the holiday dinner table, on the way to the home of a friend or out-of-town relative, and throughout the holidays. But for the rest of us, the Day of Remembrance is a time to think of those needlessly lost on our roads.

I encourage us all to go beyond remembering those lost in highway crashes, to thinking of victims of transportation accidents in all modes who won’t be joining family and friends this holiday season. Before we give thanks next Thursday, let’s take a moment to remember those who have been lost, and then take steps to make our own holiday travel safer.

By Car

Fatigue, impairment by alcohol and other drugs, and distraction continue to play major roles in highway crashes. Here’s what you can do to keep yourself and those around you safe on the road.

  • If your holiday celebrations involve alcohol, ask a friend or family member to be your designated driver, or call a taxi or ridesharing service.
  • In a crash, seat belts (and proper child restraints) are your best protection. Always make sure that you and all of your passengers are buckled up or buckled in!
  • Make sure to use the right restraint for child passengers, and be sure it’s installed correctly. If you have doubts, ask a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician.
  • Make sure you’re well rested! A fatigued driver is just as dangerous as one impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
  • Avoid distractions. In this video, survivor-advocates share their stories of personal loss—and the changes they’re working for now.
  • Don’t take or make calls while driving, even using a hands-free device. Set your navigation system before you start driving. If you’re traveling with others, ask them to navigate.

By Bus or Train

We’ve made recommendations to regulators and industry to improve passenger rail and motorcoach operations and vehicle crashworthiness, but travelers should know what to do in an emergency.

  • Pay attention to safety briefings and know where the nearest emergency exit is. If it’s a window or roof hatch, make sure you know how to use it.
  • If you’re unsure of where the exits are or how to use them, or if you didn’t receive a safety briefing, ask your driver or train conductor to brief you.
  • Always use restraints when they’re available!

By Air or Sea

Airline and water travel have become incredibly safe, but these tips can help keep you and your loved ones safe in an emergency.

  • When flying, make sure that you and your traveling companions have your own seats—even children under age 2.
  • Don’t forget your child’s car seat. The label will usually tell you whether your child car seat is certified for airplane use; the owner’s manual always has this information.
  • If you don’t know the rules for using a child’s car seat on your flight, call the airline and ask what you need to know.
  • Pay close attention to the safety briefing! Airline and marine accidents have become very rare, but you and your family can be safer by being prepared.
  • Whether you’re on an airplane or a boat, know where to find the nearest flotation device.

This holiday season, no matter how you plan to get where you’re going, remember that, for many, this time of year is a time of loss. Honor survivors and remember traffic crash victims by doing your best to make sure you—and those around you—make only happy memories on your holiday travels.

Ten Years Later: Remembering Chatsworth With Action

By  Member Jennifer Homendy

Ten years ago today, September 12, 2008, a Metrolink commuter train filled with passengers in Chatsworth, California, collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train. The collision took the lives of 25 people and injured 102 others. The cause: A texting engineer. A human operator making a human error.

On this 10th anniversary, we offer our condolences to all those who lost loved ones or were injured in the Chatsworth tragedy.

 

Photo of the Collision of Metrolink Train 111 With
Union Pacific

Although I was not a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board at that time, I was working tirelessly as the Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials in the U.S. House of Representatives to mandate implementation of technology, called positive train control (PTC), which could have prevented the Chatsworth accident from occurring.

PTC is designed to automatically stop a train when a human operator fails to. Human error is the leading cause of all train accidents. Frustratingly, the NTSB has been recommending that railroads implement PTC to address human error-caused accidents for nearly 50 years.

In the wake of the Chatsworth collision and a number of others investigated by the NTSB, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required freight, intercity passenger, and commuter railroads to implement PTC by the end of 2015. As the deadline approached, Congress extended it to 2018, with the possibility of further extensions until 2020. Now, as the new deadline approaches, PTC is still not fully implemented.

We know from railroad reports to the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency charged with regulating the railroads, that PTC is operational on only a small fraction of the railroad network.

Accidents, however, continue to occur. Since 2008, the NTSB has investigated 22 accidents that could have been prevented by PTC. Together, these accidents have resulted in 29 deaths, more than 500 injuries, and more than $190 million in property damage.

Tomorrow, Chairman Sumwalt will testify on Capitol Hill regarding the need to finish the job without further delay. Regrettably, nothing that the NTSB does can turn back the clock and change a tragic outcome; we can only urge that others be spared such an outcome in the future.

As the newest Member of the NTSB, I will continue to advocate for full implementation of PTC and for the safety recommendations we made as a result of the Chatsworth crash so that a similar tragedy is prevented in the future.

In the meantime, there is something you can do as we remember Chatsworth: eliminate distractions while operating a vehicle. Distraction continues to play a significant role in accidents.

Distracted driving kills thousands and injures hundreds of thousands every year. On the railroads, PTC is an effective backstop in case an operator is distracted, fatigued, impaired, or otherwise unable to take the right action. But operators must still adhere to strict procedures to minimize the chance of an accident.

On the highways, collision avoidance systems—forward collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking—are beginning to play a similar role to PTC. We think that these systems should be on every car, and we are working toward that outcome. But even without a collision avoidance system, you can take control by doing the right thing. Don’t send a text, make a call, or update your social media while driving. Strict laws aimed at preventing the use of portable electronic devices while driving and high-visibility enforcement can help, but ultimately, it’s up to each driver to drive attentively.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Chatsworth collision, we still have a long way to go to ensure the same kind of accident doesn’t happen again. But there are things we can do. We can insist railroads complete PTC implementation on all their tracks. We can choose vehicles with collision avoidance systems, and we can refuse to drive distracted.

Fatal collisions don’t end on impact; they echo through communities for years after the moment of a crash. But there can be hope as well as mourning in the echoes—hope for change that will prevent future tragedies. It will take all of us in transportation—professionals and the general public—to ensure the lessons learned from the Chatsworth tragedy result in that change.

 

Working for Safety

By Robert L. Sumwalt, Chairman

 Labor Day and Memorial Day both have specific relevance that can be lost in seasonal associations. The meaning of Memorial Day as a time to honor those lost in our nation’s wars can be eclipsed by its unofficial role as the “kickoff day” for summer. Similarly, all too often, we think of Labor Day only as summer’s end rather than as a commemoration of the contributions of the nation’s working men and women.

This Labor Day, I’d like to take a moment to express my appreciation for the men and women who work every day in transportation, doing everything right so that there’s not an accident for the NTSB to investigate.

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From owner-operators of long-haul trucks to employees of the biggest trucking companies; from captains of small fishing boats to employees of the biggest cruise lines and marine cargo companies; from air-tour operators to airline pilots and cabin crews; and throughout railroad and pipeline transportation, safe transportation depends on the dedication and hard work of the people on the front lines: individual transportation workers.

At the NTSB, we investigate what goes wrong in transportation. In each accident, we look at the human, the machine, and the environment. When we find a lapse in any of those areas, we look for ways to eliminate the opportunity for error. Meanwhile, day in and day out, good men and women go to work every day and do everything right. We don’t investigate the truck that stayed on the road because its conscientious drivers got plenty of sleep, or the ship that didn’t run aground because its captain and crew were well-trained and attentive. We’ll never hold a Board meeting to discuss one of the millions of safe airline flights every year, or to talk about the pipeline operators and railroad employees who found the safety defect among thousands of miles of rail or pipe before it caused an accident.

Although technology and design innovations have greatly improved transportation safety, we haven’t yet managed to eliminate everything that can go wrong in transportation. That’s why we depend so heavily on the nation’s transportation workers, who face rigorous rules and laws, to ensure safety. Commercial truckers and pilots log their rest and duty time to prevent fatigue. While the general driving public is subjected to a .08-percent blood alcohol content (BAC) legal limit, for commercial drivers, the limit is already .04 percent. And then there are all the safety procedures these professionals are required to know—and follow—throughout their commercial transportation careers.

The majority of our nation’s transportation professionals meet these high standards and are intent on preventing transportation tragedies. As Chairman of the NTSB and a member of the traveling public, I want to express my appreciation for all those transportation workers who are quietly doing things right, day in and day out.

Professor James Reason once said that safety professionals live with a “chronic unease.” Safety is a matter of constantly searching out the unassessed hazard, the unmitigated risk. Transportation operators at every level embrace this difficult challenge every day. On this Labor Day, I gratefully tip my hat to each one of you who takes safety seriously.

 

Most Wanted List Progress Report: Rail Safety

By: Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

 The NTSB is releasing a series of blogs highlighting the progress the transportation community is making in each mode to advance issues on our 2017–2018 Most Wanted List. This series sheds light on the progress made and what needs to be done going forward to improve transportation safety. This is the fourth and final blog of the series.

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Chairman Sumwalt and Robert Hall, Director, NTSB Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations talk with attendees at the Most Wanted List midpoint meeting

On November 14, 2017, the day before our Most Wanted List (MWL) progress meeting, we concluded our investigation into the April 2016 Amtrak train derailment in Chester, Pennsylvania. As I offer the closing words of this blog series highlighting the progress made  to address issues on our list, the NTSB is presently investigating the December 2017 Amtrak train derailment in DuPont, Washington, and the February 2018 Amtrak train and CSX freight train collision near Cayce, South Carolina. And, on February 15, I testified before the US Congress regarding the urgency for the industry to fully implement positive train control (PTC) by year’s end. That same day, we also issued three urgent safety recommendations to address findings from our investigations into the Cayce accident and the June 2017 Long Island Rail Road accident in Queens Village, New York.

At our midpoint meeting, I joined members from our Office of Rail, Pipeline, and Hazardous Materials Investigations to lead a discussion on rail safety. While there has been progress with implementing some of the NTSB’s recommendations, the Chester and DuPont derailments and the Cayce collision tragically illustrate that more needs to be done – and quickly!

A deficient safety management system and impairment were factors in the fatal Chester accident. And, like many accidents we’ve investigated, distraction played a role. When the accident occurred, the dispatcher was speaking to his spouse on a landline. We’ve recommended that Amtrak prohibit such calls while dispatchers are on duty and responsible for safe train operations.

The Chester accident also illustrated the fact that drug use by rail workers has been on the rise in recent years, playing a part in seven accidents in the last 3 years and nine accidents in the last decade, compared to only one accident in the prior decade. In the Chester accident, a backhoe operator who was killed had cocaine in his system, and two different opioids were discovered in the track supervisor’s system. During our investigation, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) moved quickly to require random urine drug screening for maintenance‑of‑way workers, effective April 2018. Additionally, the Amtrak locomotive engineer tested positive for marijuana, although there was no operational evidence that his prior drug use impaired his performance on the morning of the accident. What it did show, however, is that despite DOT random drug testing requirements for locomotive engineers, such a program did not deter his use of an illicit drug.

Fatigue and medical fitness are other significant MWL issues for rail, and we’re disappointed that the FRA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have withdrawn an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that would’ve supported sleep apnea screening for railroads and for commercial highway carriers. Clearly, there’s still important work to do on these issues.

Regarding another significant MWL issue for rail, strengthen occupant protection, the FRA has made progress toward developing a performance standard for keeping window glazing in place during an accident. Unfortunately, meaningful improvements related to the safety of corner posts, door designs, restraint systems, and locomotive cab crashworthiness have been slow.

The MWL’s safe transport of hazardous materials issue area focuses on transporting energy products in safer tank cars, built to the DOT-117 rather than DOT-111 and CPC 1232 standards. We are pleased to see that the more robust DOT-117 standard is being used for transport of crude oil. Ethanol transport, however, still widely relies on the DOT-111 and CPC 1232 standards. We urge stakeholders to move to using the DOT-117 standard when carrying ethanol as soon as possible, ahead of the mandated deadlines.

There has been little, if any, progress to improve transit safety oversight since we released the current MWL. To exercise effective oversight, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) must continue to use the authority it gained with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act and Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act to promulgate safety rules.

Finally, on the issue of expanding recorder use, the industry is moving forward with installing inward-facing video cameras on passenger trains, which is a step in the right direction. However, we would like to see the FRA move forward on requiring the installation and that the requirement be expanded to include audio recording, and we believe that the freight rule should follow suit. The FTA still has no such requirements for transit rail.

As I offer the last thoughts on our MWL midpoint meeting blog series, I want to thank all those who attended for taking the time to offer suggestions and share their perspectives on the issues affecting the safety of our nation’s transportation system. As we move into the second year of this MWL cycle, I challenge our stakeholders to target one or more recommendations on which they can make measurable progress before this year is over. We all want to have the safest transportation in the world, and it will take us working together to accomplish it.

 

Thank You

SafetyCompassLogoBy Stephanie D. Shaw

We launched Safety Compass in March 2011 to provide you an inside-out view of the investigative and advocacy efforts we’re engaged in and the important safety issues we’re focused on. As we close out 2017, we want to say “thank you” to you, our readers. Thank you for your interest in the work we do and for sharing our safety messages and recommendations for improving transportation safety.

From teens and sleep to drones, autonomous vehicles to our investigative processes, we’ve given you an inside look at the NTSB and highlighted our comprehensive approach to improving transportation safety across all modes and for all people.

To wrap up the year, here’s a list of some of our most popular blogs of 2017:

Last month, we released data revealing that 2,030 more people died in transportation accidents in 2016 than in 2015. Of those fatalities, 95 percent occurred on the nation’s roadways. Many of those deaths were completely preventable! As we approach 2018, we call on each of you to help us reverse the trend of increasing transportation fatalities, especially on our roadways. Continue to read our blog, see the lessons we’ve learned through our investigations, and share the safety recommendations we’ve made to prevent transportation accidents and crashes, deaths, and injuries.

We encourage you to keep up not only with our blogs, but with other NTSB materials. Sign up to be on our Constant Contact list. Follow us on Facebook (@NTSBgov), Instagram (@NTSBgov), LinkedIn (@NTSB), and Twitter (@NTSB). And in case you missed it, we launched a podcast in 2017, too! Check out Behind-the-Scene @NTSB wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to suggest a blog topic, e-mail SafetyAdvocacy@ntsb.gov.

As 2017 comes to an end, we again extend our gratitude to you for working with us to improve transportation safety. We wish you safe travels this holiday season and in 2018.