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.
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.