Off track on safer trains

Off track on safer trains
Crews remove wreckage following the September 2008 Metrolink train crash in Chatsworth that killed 25 people.
(Los Angeles Times)

On Sept. 12, 2008, hundreds of Los Angeles-area commuters had begun their trips home from work, reflecting on their days and making plans for the evening ahead as they relaxed aboard Metrolink 111. At 4:22 p.m., however, those plans — and their lives — were shattered as the commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train just west of the Chatsworth station. Twenty-four passengers and the Metrolink train’s engineer lost their lives, and more than 100 passengers were hospitalized.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the Chatsworth accident determined that the Metrolink engineer was engaged in extensive, prohibited texting using his personal phone while in the locomotive cab of Metrolink 111. During the time he was responsible for the safe operation of the train that day, the engineer sent 21 text messages, received 22 text messages and made four outgoing telephone calls. The distraction posed by this prohibited activity led to his failure to observe and respond to a red stop signal, directly leading to the head-on collision.


Had our investigation stopped here, the tragic message of the Chatsworth accident would be as simple as it is clear: When operating a vehicle — any vehicle — put down your phone. In the last several years, NTSB accident investigations on our nation’s highways, waterways and railways have shown a proliferation of wireless device use.

But we went further.


We found that the collision of Metrolink 111 and the freight train could have been avoided even in the face of the engineer’s inattention — if only the train had been equipped with an avoidance system to prevent train collisions, something the NTSB has been calling for since 1970.

The NTSB’s Chatsworth report said a positive train control, or PTC, system would have stopped the Metrolink train short of the red signal. Positive train control, an interconnected network of computers, radios and GPS technologies, is designed to remove the very element of human error at work in the Chatsworth accident.

Congress recognized the unparalleled safety benefits of the technology when mandating its implementation by the end of 2015, through the Rail Safety Improvement Act, enacted into law just more than a month after the Chatsworth tragedy.

Ever since this enactment, however, the path toward its implementation by the railroad industry has become anything but clear. Only the most assertive railroads will actually meet the 2015 requirement for PTC coverage; Metrolink is one of the very few on target to meet this deadline.


The vast majority of commuter and freight railroads, though, have found the task of integrating new technologies so daunting that lobbying Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration for a deadline extension has become a cottage industry in the nation’s capital.

Some have even argued that the cost to implement positive train control outweighs the tangible safety benefits. In the last decade, however, the NTSB has investigated 27 accidents that could have been prevented by a working PTC system, accidents that led to untold millions of dollars in damage, nearly 1,200 injuries and 67 lives lost.

That includes a crash last year between two trains, on the same track, that collided head-on in broad daylight.

Our job at the NTSB is to make recommendations that will save lives. There have been many recommendations that the NTSB has made in other modes that have saved countless lives, even though they were opposed at the time as being too expensive. For example, in aviation, the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System has prevented many midair collisions between airliners.


We believe that implementing PTC will save lives by preventing collisions, including those caused by human failure. That’s why earlier this year we convened a forum to discuss the implementation of PTC, and why we have included it on our “most wanted list,” highlighting the most critical changes needed to improve transportation safety.

Next to the entrance to the NTSB’s training center are inscribed these words: “From Tragedy We Draw Knowledge to Improve the Safety of Us All.” The lessons of Chatsworth should not go unlearned.

Positive train control must be implemented by the deadline of the law. We hope that five years from now, we are celebrating the lives saved and crashes avoided by positive train control.

Robert L. Sumwalt is an NTSB board member.

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