By Christopher A. Hart
On February 28, 1975, the world’s oldest subway system suffered one of its deadliest-ever accidents. At the London Underground’s Moorgate terminus, a train failed to stop, continued through an overrun tunnel equipped with a sand drag and a hydraulic buffer stop, and crashed into a wall.
Forty-three people lost their lives in the accident, and another 74 were injured. The U.K.’s Department of the Environment investigated the collision and reported that the accident train was found not to be defective. While the sand drag and the hydraulic buffer proved ineffective in the circumstances of the accident, another factor continued to draw interest for decades after the tragedy.
Why did the driver of the train not stop?
Since the driver was among those who died in the collision, the answer will never be conclusively known – in the conventional sense.
After the accident, however, a system dubbed “Moorgate Protection” was proposed, which would automatically slow trains at dead-end termini. Within a decade, “Moorgate Protection” was in use at all such termini in the London Underground.
Technological improvements have saved lives and prevented property damage and injuries in all modes of transportation. In the world of passenger rail and mass transit, we’re in a far safer world today, now that technology can act as a backup and prevent accidents even when human train operators do not.
NTSB recommendations urge the use of technology as a safety net when the human train crew fails. Positive train control, or PTC, uses technology to warn train crew members, and if necessary, apply the train brakes, when trains might strike one another or enter work zones from which they are barred.
For passenger rail systems that operate between cities, Congress has mandated that PTC be implemented by December 31, 2015.
Congress took this action in response to a 2008 collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people and injured more than 100. In 2013 a Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx, killing four and injuring 61. Both of these accidents could have been prevented with PTC.
The NTSB has been urging a forerunner to PTC since years before the Moorgate Tube Crash. The NTSB’s position goes back to yet another deadly train crash in 1969 in Darien, Connecticut.
This year, “Implement Positive Train Control in 2015” is on our Most Wanted List of safety improvements.
Railroads have until December 31 of this year to comply with the law and implement PTC. After 45 years of NTSB recommendations, and more than six years to meet Congress’ deadline, we should not have to wait any longer. The time to act is now.
The anniversary of the Moorgate Tube Crash is a fitting reminder that PTC can provide an essential backup to the behavior of a human engineer.
Extending this deadline is extending the length of time that passengers and crew members go without this vital backup protection.