Saturday, March 17, 2012

FRA standards and historical crash safety

Much has been written about the weight penalties that FRA standards impose upon American passenger rail equipment as well as their dubious safety advantages. In line with this, I've decided to go back through intercity and commuter rail accidents with on-board fatalities for the previous twenty years and see whether FRA standards were necessary or advantageous.  In order to be necessary for my purposes, it is necessary that the accident not be preventable through ordinary other means, such as the use of positive train control. I also freely acknowledge that there may be a selection bias in only examining fatal accidents; accidents where FRA compliance successfully prevented fatalities are necessarily excluded. It is worth keeping in mind that I am not an engineer and make no pretense of being one; my opinions as to whether FRA standards aided are strictly amateur and may be completely wrong.

Where possible, links are to the NTSB investigations.

June 24, 2011: A speeding truck operated by a driver with a history of citations for unsafe driving slams into the side of an Amtrak train, killing five aboard the train in addition to himself. It does not seem likely that alternate safety standards following UIC or Japanese practice would have helped or hindered compared to the existing FRA standards.

September 12, 2008, Chatsworth, CA: Metrolink commuter train crashes head on with a Union Pacific freight train at a combined speed of 84 miles per hour resulting in 25 fatalities. The lead passenger coach telescoped 52 feet into the locomotive and was the known location of 22 of the 24 passenger fatalities. FRA compliance clearly did not aid crash safety compared to alternative standards incorporating crash energy management. This accident would have been preventable with the use of positive train control and indeed was directly responsible for the current positive train control mandate.

September 17, 2005, Chicago, IL: Metra train derails during a crossover, killing two passengers. The crossover was rated for 10 miles per hour, the train traversed at 69 miles per hour. There was no information provided as to the nature of the fatal injuries, but they were most likely due to collision with objects or the interior of the car. This accident would have been preventable with the use of positive train control.

January 26, 2005, Glendale, CA: An aborted suicide results in a Metrolink commuter train impacting an empty SUV intentionally left on a grade crossing. 11 aboard the train were killed after the train derailed and struck a stationary freight locomotive and another passing Metrolink train. FRA standards are of unknown impact.

April 6, 2004, Flora, MS: Amtrak train derails at 78 miles per hour due to poor track maintenance and inspection. One passenger is killed due to a "traumatic impact injury." FRA standards do not appear to have been applicable to this accident.

January 6, 2003, Burbank, CA: Poor signal design at a grade crossing, where a steady red signal turned into a blinking red (normally indicating that one may proceed as though it were a stop sign) as a Metrolink commuter train approached, leads a truck driver, legally drunk at the time, to proceed through the crossing, where he is struck and killed. An elderly Metrolink passenger dies of injuries two weeks later. FRA standards are not applicable to this

April 23, 2002, Placentia, CA: A BNSF train passed a stop signal and struck a stationary Metrolink commuter train. Two passengers died  from blunt impact injuries received from striking a work table. This accident would have been preventable with positive train control.

April 18, 2002, Crescent City, FL: Amtrak Auto Train derails at 56 miles per hour due to poor track maintenance. Four fatalities resulted during the derailment due to trees dislodging the windows and resulting in the full or partial ejection of six passengers in two cars. FRA standards do not appear to have been applicable to this accident.

March 17, 2001, Nodaway, IA: Amtrak train derails at 52 miles per hour due to a defective rail. One passenger is fatally injured with no information provided as to the nature of the injury. FRA standards do not appear to have been applicable to this accident.

March 15, 1999, Bourbonnais, IL: Amtrak train strikes semi-trailer at grade-crossing and derails, striking freight cars parked on an adjacent siding. 11 passengers were fatally injured, all located in one particular sleeping car which had wound up wrapping itself around the second Amtrak locomotive in the train. As many as five may have perished due to fire rather than the impact itself due to inability to rescue, but no positive determination was made. It does not strike me as though alternative standards such as UIC would have helped or hindered in this event.

June 18, 1998, Portage, IN: NICTD two car EMU strikes a truck carrying steel coils, one of which penetrates the first car, killing three passengers. The steel coil weighed approximately 19 tons and provided an impact force of 2.36 million foot-pounds, nearly an order of magnitude higher than the 300,000 foot-pound requirement for collision posts in multiple units at the time (which were raised post-collision). Accordingly, they do not appear to have aided safety. Furthermore, this grade crossing was a known hazardous crossing and would have been preventable had it been separated or a more effective safety plan put into place with it.

February 16, 1996, Silver Spring, MD: MARC commuter train collides with Amtrak train and derails with 11 fatalities aboard the commuter. At least 8 of these fatalities were due to the catastrophic failure of the leading Amtrak locomotive's fuel tank resulting in fuel spraying into the MARC cab car and resulting fire. This accident was preventable with the use of positive train control. 

February 9, 1996, Secaucus, NJ: A New Jersey Transit commuter train proceeds through a red stop signal and collides head-on with another NJT commuter train, resulting in three fatalities. The offending engineer failed to correctly perceive the stop signal due to an unreported color blindness which was not caught during his company physical. This accident would have been prevented with the use of positive train control.

September 22, 1993, Mobile, AL: Amtrak's Sunset Limited derails and plunges off a bridge into the water, killing 47. The rail was kinked due to a barge colliding with the bridge several minutes earlier. FRA standards are not relevant to this accident.

January 18, 1993, Gary, IN: Two NICTD commuter trains collide head on after one passes a stop signal, killing seven passengers. This accident would have been prevented with the use of positive train control.

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