There have been some high-profile train accidents in recent months. A New York-bound Amtrak train derailed outside of Philadelphia in May, killing eight and injuring more than 200, some of them critically. The cause was excessive speed.
Two Norfolk Southern freight trains crashed in Georgia just last week, seriously injuring four crew members. A worker who failed to throw a switch apparently caused that accident. These are just two recent railroad accidents that resulted in injury or death. Many other recent crashes have strengthened efforts to improve railroad safety regulations.
Unfortunately, it seems as if this may not happen very soon. A story last week in the Houston Chronicle reported that few rail lines are going to meet the deadline for installing new equipment that could help prevent crashes caused by excessive speed such as the Amtrak crash. In fact, only three lines have submitted plans to the federal government, the first step in incorporating the new technology into safety operations.
Only Three Rail Lines Have Started To Implement Speed Controls
The three lines that have submitted plans to the government include one freight line, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), and two commuter lines, Metrolink in Los Angeles and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia. The technology, known as positive train control (PTC), uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train speed and automatically slow a train if it is in danger of derailing because of excessive speed.
Some of the biggest freight lines in the United States are not even close to implementing this life-saving technology. Union Pacific, the nation’s largest freight railroad, has not installed PTC on any of its more than 6,000 locomotives. Norfolk Southern, the third-largest rail line, has not begun the process of developing a safety plan that uses PTC on any of its more than 3,000 engines.
Two of these freight lines operate in Houston. In fact, BNSF and Union Pacific together control 96 percent of all tracks in Texas. Around 2,200 freight trains pass through Houston each week carrying chemicals, plastics, grain, forest products, coal, minerals and steel.
Houston Derailments And Crashes
Given the number of freight trains passing through the Houston area and the slowness with which freight lines are implementing safety improvements, it is not surprising that there are derailments and crashes in Houston. On June 11, an 84-car train derailed, with one engine and nine freight cars leaving the tracks. Two of the cars fell off an overpass onto the road below. There have been at least two Texas accidents in recent months involving a train hitting a semi truck. A BNSF train hit a man lying on the tracks in May.
According to one source, there have been at least five derailments in Texas since March 2015. Were these trains traveling too fast? Did the rail lines fail to maintain the track or rolling stock adequately? Did engineer error play a role? Was the train too heavily loaded for the condition of the track?
Because of the nature of the news cycle and the length of time required for an investigation, the answers to these questions may not become public for many months, if ever. While investigations crawl on, almost all of the freight and passenger lines in the United States will miss the deadline for installing one piece of equipment that could save lives and protect property by stopping speed-related derailments.