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A $9 billion solution to Amtrak truck crashes is years away, but common sense still required

March 25, 2015   by Martha Waggoner - THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

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RALEIGH, N.C. – America’s railroads want five more years to stop train wrecks using a high-tech system costing more than $9 billion.

An Amtrak train slammed into a tractor-trailer in North Carolina this month, injuring 55 people.

But experts tell The Associated Press that it won’t keep trains and trucks from crashing together unless both industries use a common-sense solution available right away: actually talking with each other before crossing into each other’s territory.

A truck passes over the train tracks near a sign listing an emergency number for railroad problems on Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in Halifax, N.C. A train collided with a truck, Monday injuring 55 people. The truck with a state trooper escort become stuck in the crossing but no calls were made to Amtrak about the problem, even though the sign should have been visible to the truck driver. (AP Photo /Jonathan Drew)

Plenty of fingers have been pointed since an Amtrak train slammed into a massive tractor-trailer in North Carolina this month, injuring 55 people.

No one warned the railroad beforehand that a huge truckload could be in the way.

But as it turns out, no one had to.

“It is crazy that this doesn’t get co-ordinated with the railroad, considering how difficult this operation can be and how long it takes to cross it,” Rob Molloy, acting director of highway safety for the National Transportation Safety Board, told the AP on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, no federal law or regulation backed by stiff criminal or civil penalties specifically requires co-ordination between truck and train operators, the AP found after reviewing state and federal regulations and safety recommendations and interviewing dozens of experts.

About a third of the states, including North Carolina, don’t require it, either.

“There’s no state or federal law that says someone has to call,” North Carolina DOT spokesman Steve Abbott confirmed.

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No one involved has taken any public responsibility for failing to co-ordinate the Halifax crossing in advance: not drivers of the truck or its pilot and chase cars, not the trooper escorting the load, not the trucking company, nor the state transportation agency officials who approved the planned route and required that a copy be shared with the State Highway Patrol.

No one in this chain was tasked with making another copy for the railroad, or calling CSX Transportation Inc. dispatchers to warn approaching trains to go slow.

Trucks get in accidents at highway-rail crossings about 10 times a week in the U.S., federal regulators say. Of these, supersized loads can be particularly challenging: An Associated Press review of news coverage found oversized tractor-trailers were hit at least 20 times in 2013 and 2014.

“If you are trying to take an unexpected or surprising or complicated load over railroad tracks … you should be letting the railroad know you are planning to do that and co-ordinating,” said Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

The FRA rules the rails and the Federal Highway Administration runs the roads, but each focuses on its own domain.

An Amtrak train that was carrying some 169 passengers is shown derailed near Hanford, Calif., Monday Oct. 1, 2012. Two cars and the locomotive of the train car derailed after colliding with a big rig truck in California's Central Valley, authorities said. At least 20 passengers suffered minor to moderate injuries, authorities said. The crash occurred when the driver of the big rig carrying cotton trash failed to yield and hit the train, authorities said. The impact pushed the two passenger cars and the locomotive off the tracks south of Hanford, a farming town. (AP Photo/Gosia Woznicacka)

In the absence of shared regulations that govern where rails meet roads, highway regulators have issued “best practices” guidelines, suggesting that pilot car drivers “make advance contact with the railroad if in doubt that the load can safely negotiate the crossing.”

Truck driver John Devin Black seemed to have some doubts before trying to negotiate a left turn across the tracks in Halifax on March 9 with a load that stretched longer than half a football field and weighed 127 tons.

An eyewitness said Black spent 15 to 20 minutes fussing over the load and then moving back and forth in the crossing before the crossing arms came down. He leaped out moments before impact.

The NTSB has recommended solutions to these rail crossing accidents for 47 years, but can’t make the rules.

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And industry groups representing drivers, trucking companies, railroad owners, trains, state troopers and state road and rail agencies don’t want their people held responsible, said attorney Bob Pottroff, whose Kansas firm files injury lawsuits in rail accidents.

“As soon as someone acknowledges responsibility to try to solve the problem, their own belief system is that that opens them up to liability,” said Pottroff, who describes himself as “the only guy foolhardy enough” to make a living from fighting for rail safety.

“The reality is this industry makes billions of dollars running freight through communities at 80 mph. And they have a responsibility to make it safe for everybody,” Pottroff said.

In response to the Halifax crash, North Carolina may require that oversized trucking permits be shared with the railroad as well as the Highway Patrol, state traffic engineer Kevin Lacy said.

“This seems to be common-sense safety” that shouldn’t be costly, difficult or onerous, said Steve Ditmeyer, a former FRA official who teaches railway management at Michigan State University.

NTSB campaigned to hold truck drivers responsible for warning railroad dispatchers ahead of risky crossings after a similar accident in Florida in 2000. But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said any responsibility should be shared.

The NTSB called this response “unacceptable,” and officially gave up in December 2014.

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said the train service was reviewing an AP request to discuss rail safety.

CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay wouldn’t discuss whether requiring co-ordination would be helpful, but said her company “assists drivers who contact us to safely transport oversized loads across our railroad tracks.”

A technical fix, “Positive Train Control” using global positioning systems, was required by Congress to be completed this year.

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During the 47 years since the NTSB began advocating for some form of this technology, it could have prevented 144 accidents injuring 6,500 people and killing 300, said Robert Hall, the safety agency’s director of railroad and hazardous materials investigations.

But the Association of American Railroads calls it “an unprecedented technical and operational challenge” and is lobbying for an extension until 2020.

The association’s website says freight train companies have already spent $5.2 billion and need to spend in excess of $9 billion to make sure the system is completely installed and works reliably.

Even if fully implemented, the system is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments and accidents involving railway work zones.

It won’t keep trains and trucks from crashing unless trains are warned to slow down enough first to be able to stop in an emergency, said Bob Chipkevich, who directed rail accident probes at the NTSB before starting his own consulting firm.

Meanwhile, there is a low-cost fix that won’t require any new technology or infrastructure, Hall said: a toll-free emergency number on prominent display at the scene of this month’s crash.

The phone number “will get you through to the dispatcher for the train, and you could stop the train,” Hall said. “I think in Halifax, North Carolina, there was probably sufficient time to follow through with that.”

Associated Press Writer Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.

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