It’s not easy to be Amtrak right now. Talk about a rough stretch…three major accidents in the past two months alone. First, in December 2017, a Cascades train traveling from Seattle to Portland came to an abrupt halt, derailing off a bridge and onto a busy highway. Then, a chartered Amtrak train traveling through Virginia collided with a garbage truck. Most recently, an Amtrak train traveling from New York to Miami collided with a freight train in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, these are just the most recent incidents…barely three years ago was one of the largest train derailments in history: the Philadelphia Amtrak crash, which killed eight people and left 180 injured. How can we prevent these accidents?
Tools Can Prevent these Tragedies
...but they might not be practical yet. The most promising tool to mitigate or eliminate these accidents is a system called Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC monitors and controls train movement by limiting speed or stopping a train when it reaches excessive speeds. In essence, PTC “takes over” control of the train from the driver, slowing down the train and reducing the impact of human error in high-risk situations. Nearly all of these incidents could have been prevented with PTC, according to industry experts and government officials. While it's reassuring to have a solution within reach, we are still a long way from implementing this system nationwide: the National Transportation Safety Board has set a new deadline for full implementation for December 31, 2020.
Though it can save many lives, there are many reasons for this delay. For starters, PTC is not cheap. It’s estimated that the total cost of implementing it nationwide is about $14 billion, plus hundreds of millions of dollars each year to maintain it. Second, installing PTC across the country would require an unprecedented technological challenge: nothing of this scale has ever been attempted anywhere in the world. It would involve massive amounts of work, surveying and mapping miles of routes and locations, installing the technology on nearly 20,000 locomotives, equipping thousands of switches, and dozens of other significant projects. Even if PTC were in place, it does not guarantee the perfect prevention of railway accidents or fatalities. In fact, it is estimated that PTC it would only prevent 2% of all train collisions and derailments. While it would stop many high-speed derailments and train-to-train collisions, PTC is not a magic solution that will prevent all future railway deaths.
So, what do railway companies like Amtrak do in the meantime? Train their drivers better? Put in more safety policies and procedures? That’s what organizations typically resort to in response to an uptick in serious incidents. But the problem with this approach is simple: these train drivers and railway employees have already been trained extensively, and they are well aware of rules and procedures. In fact, investigations into these incidents did not identify a lack of technical knowledge as a primary contributing factor of the incident. Instead, many of these train accidents have been attributed to human error. For example:
In the Dupont, WA, crash, the train was estimated to be traveling at over twice the speed limit when it derailed.
In the Philadelphia derailment, it was found that the engineer accelerated to 106 mph at a junction where he should have slowed down to 50 mph. Investigators say he became distracted by an emergency situation with a nearby train that made an emergency stop.
In 2008, a Metrolink commuter train collided directly with a Union Pacific freight train in California, killing 25 people and injuring over 100 others. It was later found that the engineer was texting, then ran past a red stop signal and crashed into an oncoming train.
A Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx back in December 2013. The engineer fell asleep, which kept the train moving at 82 mpg rather than slowing down to the required 30 mph as it came into a curve.
Consider Personal Safety Behavior
No human is infallible, so the potential for errors must be considered. However, safety professionals rarely talk about the fact that some individuals are much more prone to certain types of errors than others. In our research, we have identified individual traits that greatly increase personal exposure to risk. These traits fall into four broad factors, and depending on a person’s profile on these traits, they can be more predisposed to certain types of human errors.
Control – the extent to which you feel in control of future consequences through present actions as well as control over your emotions
Awareness – how much you see and remember in your surroundings, especially when doing multiple tasks
Rules – the degree to which you follow vs. bend any rules, especially ones you don’t like
Caution – the level of discomfort you feel with risk-taking
As safety professionals, we know that attributing these tragic events to just “human error” is very problematic. There are many factors that contribute to any safety incident, especially in complex systems such as the railway industry. However, as we are constantly investing time and effort into making our workers safer, we cannot ignore that the individual and his or her decision-making and safety behavior are always important parts of the equation.
Check back next week, as I'll be writing about the links between different types of human error and these safety traits, and how we can apply this information to keep us traveling on track.