PTC, two-person crews necessary after Amtrak tragedy

Published: June 12, 2015

By John Previsich, SMART Transportation Division President

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Previsich

We are all aware of the recent incident that occurred on Amtrak Train 188 in Philadelphia. Three of our conductor Brothers and Sisters from Local 1370 in New York City and the engineer operating the locomotive have had their lives forever changed by a tragedy that could have been prevented. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Akida Henry, Thomas O’Brien, Emilio Fonseca and everyone who lost their lives or were injured in the May 12 derailment.

The accident is currently under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Members of the SMART Transportation Division’s National Safety Team were dispatched to the site of the catastrophic derailment to assist in the investigation. Significant progress has been made in understanding how and why the accident occurred and that investigation is continuing. It is our policy to not comment on the outcome of an ongoing investigation and we will leave that discussion for a later date.

We are, however, compelled to comment on a number of issues raised in the national discussion after the accident. The installation of Positive Train Control and its value in accident prevention has been placed front and center in the dialogue. While our Organization strongly supports the installation of PTC as a safety enhancement, we must comment that PTC is a safety overlay to the other measures that are necessary for a safe rail operation. PTC can be a valuable tool in helping to ensure safe operation of a train according to what is supposed to happen, but it is of little or no value in addressing issues that aren’t supposed to happen; i.e., pedestrian or vehicular intrusions into the right-of-way, broken or faulty rail or railhead, sudden incapacitation of the employee operating the train and other anomalies that will continue to occur with or without PTC.  Some in the rail industry even claim that PTC will permit locomotives traveling at high speeds, routinely hauling hazardous materials, to be safely operated by a single crew member. This claim is fiction. One need only look at the Chatsworth incident, Metro North and the tragic 2013 train wreck in Lac-Mégantic, where a train leveled an entire town in Quebec, to see the risks associated with operating trains with single-person crews.

The ongoing dialogue includes discussion of inward-facing cameras in locomotive cabs. While inward-facing cameras may be of interest after an accident occurs, they will do nothing to prevent tragedies like the one we saw in Philadelphia. It is only natural to want to know every detail that occurs during an accident. However, locomotives already incorporate sophisticated event recorders that record the actions of train crews. The recorder measures speed, throttle, amperage, whistle and bell, application of the brakes, location, operation of head lights, ditch lights, etc. The data collected are routinely used by the NTSB and FRA to pinpoint the cause of accidents, and have already provided important information about this terrible incident. Inward-facing cameras add little additional information to that already available and in fact may be counter-productive due to the intrusive and unnecessary distraction caused by their use.

Many who promote the increased use of video surveillance in locomotives have good intentions, but rail transportation safety will continue to be impaired until Congress adopts a serious reform agenda that addresses crew staffing, work schedules and chronic fatigue. Focusing on implementation of technology that might make it easier to investigate accidents or monitor employee behavior merely diverts the conversation from meaningful safety reform. No one should believe that inward-facing cameras are the answer to the multiple safety challenges faced by the industry. There is no technology that can ever safely replace a second crewmember in the cab. The uncontrolled external environment in which trains operate along with regulatory and operational demands of a safe transportation service demand a crew of at least two fully trained and qualified employees in the control cab of every train. All such employees must be given a predictable work schedule with adequate time away from work to properly mitigate the chronic fatigue inherent in the industry.

Allowing discussion of inward-facing cameras and PTC to divert policy makers from addressing other much more meaningful rail safety reforms would be a mistake. Employees know the real culprits that undermine rail safety include chronic fatigue, chaotic and unpredictable work schedules, trains being operated with a single crewmember in the locomotive cab – a situation that if not present would have prevented the Philadelphia accident – and delays in implementing life-saving measures such as predictable work schedules. No amount of PTC or surveillance cameras can make up for the lack of well-rested, properly-staffed operating crews.

It is time for Congress to get serious and advance legislation that will have a meaningful impact on the true safety issues in our industry. It is only through such action that we will reduce the occurrence of preventable rail accidents and save lives.