HOLMBERG: Amtrak crash, we’re behind the curve in terms of smart trains

Posted at 12:46 AM, May 14, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-14 07:17:05-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- There won’t be any question as to what a happened with outside of Philadelphia with the speed-related Amtrak crash that killed seven and injured dozens. There are forward-facing video cameras on Amtrak trains, as well as the event recorder – the so-called black box which is actually part of the engine’s computer system that records every touch of the throttle and brakes.

But why wasn’t there a warning system, or an automatic braking system that could’ve taken over when the engineer allegedly exceeded the maximum authorized speed for that curve?

The speed limit leading up to that curve is apparently 70 mph - and 50 in the curve itself. But after that curve, with a clear (green light) track, I’m told the speed limit is 120 or 125.

Did the engineer think he was past the curve and pull back the throttle?

We’ll find out.

It certainly appears to be a disaster that technology could’ve  prevented.

In mass-transit places like Japan, parts of Europe and in US cities with big subway or metro systems, there are automatic train control systems and even automatic train operations systems designed to avoid missed-signal collisions and speed related disasters.

Amtrak calls their’s Positive Train Control, including its Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES), designed to automatically stop a train when human error endangers it.

According to an article in Amtrak’s employee newsletter “Ink” (Jan./Feb. 2015) detailing the system, when an unsafe or unusual movement occurs and the engineer doesn’t respond to an audible warning and screen display, the onboard computer safely stops the train.

The newsletter reports that  the system is fully operational on 400 miles of track in parts of the northeast. They’re shooting for 1,200 more miles this year, which is a sliver of their passenger service lines.

I’m told there are parts of the some lines that have sections – where switches are, for example – that have warning and emergency systems in place, but for the most part, engineers have to be paying attention, following the speed limits and signals and knowing the road.

For the most part, it works pretty well. But when it doesn’t, it’s really bad news.

Hours after the crash, Congress voted down increased funding for Amtrak.

This is a yearly ritual. Amtrak has been punched in the head so many times it has cauliflower trains. Congress threatens to de-fund it some years, slash its budget others. Eventually each year, lawmakers hold their noses and keep it rolling.

We are a car culture, which is why Amtrak is the red-headed stepchild. This in a world where the majority of travelers move by trains and busses (along with bicycles, horses and camels).

As long as the majority of us believe mass transit is for the other masses, we’re going to have occasional mass casualties because we’re behind the curve in terms of train transportation technology.

I wish train travel cost a little less. People like me who like riding, would do a lot more of it if it was cheaper than flying and not too much more expensive than driving.

If we ever have a major interruption in fuel supplies, we’re all going to be wishing we gave Amtrak  more love.

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