Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Infrastructure demands action

By Carl

It’s really sad to read stories like this and then realize they are nearly wholly preventable:

The revelation that a New York City commuter train derailed while barreling into a sharp curve at nearly three times the speed limit is fueling questions about whether automated crash-avoidance technology could have prevented the carnage.

Safety officials have championed what's known as positive train control technology for decades, but the railroad industry has sought to postpone having to install it because of the high cost and technological issues.

Investigators haven't yet determined whether the weekend wreck, which killed four people and injured more than 60 others, was the result of human error or mechanical trouble. But some safety experts said the tragedy might not have happened if Metro-North Railroad had the technology, and a senator said the derailment underscored the need for it.

That Senator, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, may draw up a bill to provide financing for the implementation. After all, Metro-North serves Connecticut, as well, and indeed, other derailments have occurred that positive train control, PTC, could have prevented.

In fact, this is the second derailment on this same stretch of track in 2013.

PTC is not a whole lot different than the radar-like systems on many luxury cars that not only can warn you of trouble ahead or to the side, but can wrest control of the car to prevent an accident, even applying the brakes within what it considers a safe stopping distance.

It should be mandatory. It will be necessary if the stated Obama goal of increasing high-speed rail transport is to be achieved, as it will also allow for trains to be run at faster intervals and shorter spacing. The “margin of error” becomes much thinner when you have a computer controlling the whole process. Just ask Amazon.com.

This particular incident occurred as the train entered a curve rated for a top speed of 30 mph at 82 mph, nearly three times the speed limit. The brakes were applied, but not until just five seconds before the derailment. Whether it was human or mechanical failure has yet to be determined. Four people died, tragic enough but it could have been far worse if the train had continued on into the Spuyten Duyvil, a notoriously treacherous split of water. Even if someone managed to escape the wreckage, they would not be safe until they reached dry land.

Infrastructure repairs and preventive measures tend to be expensive and require large capital outlays up-front.

The MTA, the agency who oversees the Metro-North system, is cash-strapped and in debt up to its eyeballs, thanks in large part to a series of mismanaged administrations that have insisted on holding bridge and tunnel tolls – a primary funding mechanism – in check while raising fares on the poor subway riders. This has forced the MTA to acquire large debts to pay operating expenses. It’s a little like borrowing from the bank to feed your family.

This pretty much means that any system upgrade of this nature will involve federal funding of some sort, and that means trying to get it through the Teabaggers. Does anyone see that as a likely probability, even with four people dead?

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)

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