What does the National Transportation Safety Board know that we don’t?

Almost 8 months after the Metrolink accident at Oxnard this year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) asked Metrolink to stop using the Rotem Cab Cars to operate trains in push mode. These cab cars can still be used in passenger service, but leased BNSF freight locomotives will be coupled to the cab cars and and used to operate the trains in what would have been push mode. So far the NTSB has not publicly given the reason for this decision. The most likely problem would be with the Pilot, which on locomotives and cab cars is the plow at the front which is used to push away debris off the tracks to prevent derailments. It appears that a major problem during the February 24th crash in Oxnard may have been from debris from the crash with a large pickup truck and trailer on the tracks. It is likely that debris got under the wheels of the leading Cab Car at speed causing the Cab Car to derail. This resulted in the Cab Car going out of control, uncoupling from the rest of the train, spinning 180 degrees and rolling over on its side.

There are other issues to address from this accident besides the Cab Car and its Pilot. Having the train uncouple is unusual and made this accident worse. We are not sure what caused the injures to the trains’s operator which lead a week after the accident to his death. The most likely cause was from blunt force trauma as the Cab Car was spinning and rolling around, causing the operator to be thrown around in the operator’s cab. What would have likely saved this man’s life would have been seat belts in the Cab Car. This would have restrained him and prevented him from colliding with the hard metal surfaces of the Cab.

There are plenty of things than can and should be done to make the railroad right of way safer. Mounting cameras and sensors, particularly at grade crossing where most accidents occur can give advanced warning of problems to dispatchers and operators. Cameras and sensors can be used to warn of either trespassers or objects on the tracks. This might be also be done using flying drones to patrol railroad rights of way. The freight railroads are already using drones to patrol some of their rights of way to find track problems and repair them before they can cause a derailment.

What seems to be needed is more research into the effectiveness of the Pilot on the Rotem Cab Cars in clearing debris off of the track and not letting debris getting under the train. Also more research may be needed to improve the effectiveness of Pilots in general in keeping the tracks clear. Derailments per se are not the problem. Derailments are a safely feature as long as the trains remains coupled and upright and is valuable when there is a problem on the tracks by rapidly stopping trains with minimal damage or injuries.What is the problem is when trains go out of control in a derailment. More work on preventing out of control derailments is needed.

As tragic as the death and handful of serious injuries from the Oxnard crash are, the far greater problem and leading cause of death on the railroads is from cars and people, being on the tracks when trains arrive. In many cases these deaths are suicides. Media coverage of the February Metrolink crash was immediate and world wide, in large part because from the wreckage it was assumed that many people had been killed instantly. What was amazing was how few major injuries there were in this accident. It didn’t take long for the Media to drop this story with so few major injuries.

But almost every day there is as least one fatal grade crossing accident in this Country. This adds up to hundreds every year. These accidents and suicides affect the people who are injured or die and their love ones at these grade crossings. These accidents affects the local traffic tied up from these accidents. And it affects the passengers on the trains, not only on the train involved in the accidents, but also passengers on trains delayed because of tracks blocked by accidents and the need to wait for the coroner to release the body and the trains from the accident site.

There is no single solution to stopping grade crossing accidents. Running locomotives on both ends of a passenger trains won’t stop these crashes from happening in the first place. It will require many improvements to make it harder for people to get on the tracks and vehicles to be in a crossing when a train is coming. Many of these crashes can be prevented with advanced warning to stop the train. More still needs to be done to educate people of the dangers of being at a crossing when a train s coming. More is needed to prevent suicides and identify suicidal behavior.

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