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The recent train crash in Pennsylvania underscores deficiencies in automated railroad braking systems

The recent collision involving three Norfolk Southern trains in Pennsylvania has brought to light the inadequacies of the automated braking system designed to avert such incidents.

As outlined in the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report on the March 2 derailment, none of the conditions leading to the collision would have activated the automated positive train control (PTC) system to halt the trains. Remarkably, not only did the system fail to prevent the second train from colliding with a stationary one, but it also proved ineffective in stopping the third train from crashing into the derailed cars obstructing its path moments later.

Railroad safety expert Chris Barkan pointed out that the current PTC system is not configured to safeguard against such scenarios. Mandated by Congress following the tragic 2008 collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train in California, which claimed 25 lives and injured over 100 individuals, the development and implementation of the PTC system by railroads cost approximately $15 billion over more than a decade. However, its efficacy remains limited to specific circumstances.

In the Pennsylvania incident, despite the eastbound train slowing down to 13 mph after passing a restricted speed signal, the absence of a stop signal rendered the braking system inactive. Subsequently, the derailment of three railcars obstructed the adjacent track, leading to the collision with the third train traveling at approximately 22 mph. Unfortunately, the braking system’s reliance on signals from the railroad infrastructure renders it incapable of detecting obstacles on the tracks, exacerbating the risk of collisions.

The aftermath of the crash saw six railcars and two locomotives derail, with minor injuries sustained by the seven crew members aboard. Norfolk Southern estimated the damages at $2.5 million, though it declined to comment on the NTSB’s preliminary findings, pending the completion of the final report, which is expected to take over a year.

Preliminary indications from the NTSB suggest that the limitations of the PTC system played a role in the accident, with no mechanical malfunctions detected thus far. Consequently, the focus of the investigation will shift towards scrutinizing the railroad’s protocols, procedures, and training practices.

The incident underscores the critical importance of adherence to safety protocols, particularly in restricted speed areas, where crews are mandated to adjust their speed to ensure they can stop within half the distance of their visibility. Factors such as inclement weather conditions, such as light rain during the Pennsylvania crash, may also impact visibility and necessitate heightened vigilance.

As the investigation progresses, the railroad industry faces renewed scrutiny over safety practices, highlighting the imperative for ongoing vigilance and adherence to safety protocols to mitigate the risk of future accidents.

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