AIN Blog: Lessons from a Train Wreck – Why Cabin Safety Matters

 - July 1, 2015, 1:27 AM

I don’t normally write about accidents outside aviation, but there are times that we can learn from events in other transportation modes. Certainly some of the big issues today–fatigue and use of PDAs–cross transportation modes. So while we have a low accident rate in aviation, we can study other transportation accidents to see what lessons there may be for us.

Not too long ago, I wrote about the lessons we could learn in the aviation industry from the faulty GM ignition switch debacle. An internal report prepared for General Motors highlighted problems that we in aviation would be well advised to take note of. (See “Guarding against a culture of complacency,” AIN, August 2014, page 61.) GM is facing civil liability lawsuits and civil penalties, and there are media reports that the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan is preparing criminal charges against GM and possibly some of its former employees–all the more reason to pay attention to GM’s internal report, especially in light of the NASA reports from mechanics indicating management pressure to push maintenance and even falsify maintenance entries. As you all know, falsification of maintenance records is a crime, and one of these days–hopefully before an accident–a U.S. Attorney is going to start looking at the allegations mechanics are making at some major airlines.

The deadly crash of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Train 188 traveling from Washington, D.C., to New York City perhaps provides another opportunity for us to learn–or even re-learn–some lessons about the importance of cabin safety and high-tech versus low-tech approaches to transportation risks. The photographs of this latest train wreck show a trail of overturned rail cars and twisted metal. The devastation was so great it took multiple days to find all the dead in the wreckage. Passengers on the train recounted horrifying images of seats tearing loose from their floor mountings and passengers flying across the train, landing in luggage racks or, worse, hurtling through windows. In the end, the toll was eight people dead and more than 200 injured.

Look for Low-tech Solutions

Much of the media focus has been on the technology that could have prevented the speeding train from reaching 106 mph, as reported by the NTSB after examining the train’s black-box data. That speed was more than twice the authorized speed for that section of track as it entered a curve. The technology that could have stopped the speeding train–known as positive train control or automatic train control–is not new. It has been mandated by Congress since 2008 in response to a crash in California that killed 25 people and injured scores more when a commuter train ran through a stop sign and collided with a freight train. But the technology is expensive and encountered a number of obstacles, including negotiating for the frequency spectrum needed to operate the wireless system. Although the law requires that the system be operational by year-end, the GAO reported approximately a year ago that most railroads will not have the equipment fully operational by the deadline.

The NTSB has pushed for this technology, and I support it as well. It likely would have prevented Northeast Regional Train 188 from gaining the fatal speed on the curve. The system works via transponders on the track that relay information to a control center and then back to the locomotive. If the train is traveling, for example, too fast for the section of track, the engineer would first receive an alert. Absent an appropriate response, the train’s on-board computer would take over and stop the train.

But while the focus has been on this high-tech solution (which incidentally would not prevent derailments caused by other factors, such as mechanical failure of the wheels or track or an obstacle such as a car on the track), some low-tech solutions to improving train car safety have been largely ignored. And while these solutions might not have prevented all the deaths or injuries, they likely would have prevented many injuries and even deaths, especially in the cars that were not severely mangled. 

Amtrak and other railroad companies would do well to look at the remarkable improvements in passenger safety–and significant reductions in passenger deaths and injuries–that resulted from improvements in aircraft cabin safety. Some of these improvements included redesigning and hardening the attachment points so that seats would not detach in the event of rapid deceleration; improvements in seat design to lessen impact injuries; use of less toxic and less flammable materials; and the use of automatically lighted exit ways. And, of course, the use of seat belts (in a properly redesigned railroad car) would prevent a large number of injuries inflicted on passengers as they literally fly out of their seats in a derailment or other sudden stoppage. We can see the success of these efforts in aviation in the many runway excursion accidents that have resulted in few injuries and even fewer deaths. 

There is much that railroads can learn from aviation in terms of cabin safety, in particular for ensuring that everything and everyone stays firmly restrained if the ride gets rough. In aviation, this ranges from insisting that maintenance is properly performed on seats and seat belts (and that these items aren’t given short shrift in the rush to move airplanes as quickly and economically as possible) to ensuring vigilance by flight attendants on takeoff and landing that items are properly stored and not blocking passenger egress in the event of an emergency. 

And, of course, I could not end an article on cabin safety without a plea for our most vulnerable passengers–those under the age of two–who remain the only ones not legally required to be properly restrained on takeoff and landing or during turbulence. I have no hope of the FAA’s mandating this until a child is needlessly killed. But I am eternally hopeful that at least one airline will one day soon take cabin safety to its next level and require everyone regardless of age to travel safely.