Fix Our Train System—Now

A NJ Transit train seen through the wreckage after it crashed in to the platform at the Hoboken Terminal September 29, 2016 in Hoboken, New Jersey.

A NJ Transit train seen through the wreckage after it crashed in to the platform at the Hoboken Terminal September 29, 2016 in Hoboken, New Jersey. Photo: Pancho Bernasconi/Getty Images

Train number 1614 from Spring Valley, N.Y., to Hoboken, N.J., was running without delay; until it barreled through a barrier at the end of the track and crashed into the terminal itself, killing one and injuring more than 100 people. Delays, however, were precisely what made this accident so horrific—delays by the railroad in installing safety equipment that may have prevented this tragedy.

The exact cause of this crash remains uncertain, as the engineer, whose phone seems to have been properly stowed out of reach, has no recollection of the crash and the conductor says that all appeared normal just before it. Further complicating matters, the one “black box” that has been located was put into service in 1995 and was no longer functional. Train crashes of recent vintage are of personal importance to the Observer; our former politics editor was badly injured in the Amtrak crash that killed eight last year.

In 2008, Congress mandated that all railroads with regularly scheduled intercity and commuter rail service fully implement Positive Train Control (PTC) by December 31, 2015. PTC uses GPS and processor-based technology to override human error and slow or stop a train. It can prevent train-to-train collisions—such as the Chatsworth, Calif., Metrolink commuter train that collided with a freight train, killing 25 passengers when the engineer was distracted because he was busy texting. PTC would have automatically slowed the Amtrak train outside of Philadelphia that was speeding at 106 mph around a curve with a speed limit of 55 mph. In 2013, in the Bronx, another engineer fell asleep at the controls and took a sharp curve at too high a speed and derailed his train, killing four. PTC would have prevented that accident. And PTC possibly could have prevented last week’s crash in Hoboken.

Railroad management needs to be held accountable. The safety of the commuting public demands it.

But none of these heavily traveled lines had the required equipment. Railroad executives have delayed implementation, typically pleading a lack of funds—that this is an unfunded mandate—or technical challenges.

In response, Congress caved. It extended the implementation deadline until the end of 2018, and built in a further two-year extension if a railroad is really trying.

Such excuses and delays are ridiculous, especially as American car ardor finally ebbs and mass transit enjoys a renewed moment. Many American railroads—commuter and long-haul lines—have long received considerable subsidies. (Freight lines do not receive government subsidies, but they are far ahead in implementing PTC.) Zero percent of LIRR or Metro-North locomotives have the required equipment. Only one-third of Amtrak trains do, and only two-thirds of track segments have been completed. Most of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson trains have the safety devices, but none of the track does.

This is unacceptable.

In appealing to jurors’ emotions, plaintiffs’ lawyers love to say, “This is an accident that didn’t have to happen.” If only people were less flawed: If they didn’t drink before driving, if they didn’t text while driving; if they didn’t leave puddles on slippery floors or picked up dangerous items. But all of us are careless, flawed and occasionally negligent.

Negligence is a major factor in many train wrecks. Human carelessness cannot be eliminated, but technology could have prevented the accidents and their tragic consequences. These really were avoidable—had the railroads’ so-called leadership properly budgeted, planned and implemented PTC.

Pleading inadequate funds is no longer acceptable. Railroad management needs to be held accountable. The safety of the commuting public demands it.

Fix Our Train System—Now