By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Barry Solow.
The snowy, ice covered morning of Sunday, December 1st, 2013, proved fatal for New York City commuters when a Bronxbound Metro-North train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station, killing four and injuring dozens. Engineer William Rockefeller was alone at the controls when he realized the train was hurtling far too fast (around 80 mph) to take an approaching curve. He slammed on the breaks but the train still veered, flipping at least three cars near the banks of the freezing Hudson and Harlem rivers. Rockefeller tested negative for drugs and alcohol but reports slipping in and out of “a daze” which caused an impairment to his reaction time.
A wave of dire consequences resulted from Rockefeller’s error. In response to the accident, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued an emergency order requiring a buddy-system for co-operating all trains until that time when a Positive Train Control (PTC) system is put in place. The PTC automatically slows a train down in areas of greatly reduced speeds should the engineer fail to do so.
In a public letter to MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast, FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo cites four major accidents in seven months, calling the deaths and injuries “simply unacceptable,” and public outrage has run rampant. Perhaps in response to this bad blood, Metro-North Railroad President Howard Permut announced his retirement just a few days ago.
PTC is not a new development, simply a slow one. In 2008, Congress mandated it be installed on 60,000 miles of rail lines in the US after a deadly crash in California claimed 25 lives. The feat would cost about $10 billion and was to be completed by the end of 2015. Since then, the MTA and other railways have been pushing for deadline extensions, a request that will undoubtedly be denied in light of the recent events. Many safety experts agree that PTC would have prevented December’s accident, so why would the MTA have waited to install the system – especially considering they’ve known of the deadline for four years now?
“One thing you must understand about the MTA is it is government funded, and therefore political,” says Camille Kamga, Director of the University Transportation Research Center at CUNY. Kamga and his department work closely with the MTA to research improvements to the city’s transit.
“Some of the funds come from the tolls that you pay at the bridge, they have real estate holdings, and then the rest of the money is from the state. The mayor of New York City doesn’t control the MTA, the MTA is controlled by the governor and the board – which is a big political issue.”
Government funding equates to lobbying for allocation, not an easy feat considering the size of New York City versus the size of the entire state.
“Even though there’s a lot of research we’ve done into how to improve the MTA, the revenue that they get is not enough to meet the needs. The city only contributes around $100 million in funds to the MTA, the rest come from the state,” says Kamga. “Statewide, other cities don’t live the transit problem that New York City lives, so they don’t see why they should invest.”
In MTA transit research, cost-benefit analysts take the number of lives that could be potentially lost and assign it a number, then they take the cost of installing a system like PTC and compare the two. If the loss of life is a lower number, they will recommend the system not be installed. Considering these are the first four deaths from a Metro-North train crash since its inception 30 years ago, the PTC represents high costs for a low benefit. In fact, reports from the United States Government Accountability Office deemed the cost of installation to far outweigh the safety benefits of such a system in August, 2013.
David Holland, who runs TransitBlogger.com tells BTR that though “it’s impossible to put a specific price tag on the life of an individual, it is fair to ask if implementing such a system is even worth it.
“In an overall look at fatalities, for every 1 billion train passengers, seven have died,” he explains, citing the FRA via this WNYC article.
Regardless of reports or lack of funds, now that PTC is in the public eye it appears the MTA will have no choice but to comply with the 2015 deadline. So should the automated system take the place of us fallible humans altogether?
Holland isn’t as keen on the idea.
“Many have claimed the PTC system could have prevented the Metro-North derailment,” he says, “but the proof is not there to say that is 100% true. Regardless of what systems are put into place, the human element will still remain as the most important aspect of transit safety.”
A PTC system that is reliable enough to take the place of human employees altogether is a far off goal. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) reports that even the PTC technology they have today didn’t exist when the Federal government first mandated it – it had to be built from scratch over the past few years. Thus they claim substantially more time is needed for optimal development and implementation.
The entire project is estimated to cost around $10 billion, and Kamga says there’s really no use in implementing it at all unless it’s done correctly. That means installing it in parts, and testing each along the way.
Even though public outrage is weighing heavily on the MTA right now, there’s really no way to speed up the process given the limited resources and need for meticulousness. PTC installation crawls forward at a snail’s pace, but take comfort in the fact that railways remain one of the safest forms of transportation available, even without it.