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Train Crashes and Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day

What do train crashes and Groundhog Day have to do with each other? Answer: they both repeat themselves with depressing, and avoidable, regularity. The terrible crash at Hoboken Terminal is the latest tragic case in point.

For decades, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been recommending the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) to cover virtually all tracks over which passengers and hazardous freight are moved by train. The technology has been around for some 40 years! Yet, railroads have delayed, and delayed, and delayed installation, even as the crashes have piled up and human lives have been lost over and over again. Deadlines come and deadlines go, and still heavily travelled routes are not protected.

Human and mechanical error are facts of life. PTC has been perfected to a very high degree of reliability. It is inarguable that PTC saves lives, and commerce generally benefits by having goods delivered rather than trashed in a crash. Yet, railroads obstinately refuse to install PTC until after tragedy strikes.

The needless September 29 crash of the New Jersey Transit commuter train is a heartbreaking reminder that delay means more death and destruction. The NTSB now reports that the train sped up from eight mph to about 21 mph in less than a minute before the crash, and that about 38 seconds before the crash, the throttle was moved back to idle. The speed limit is 10 mph. The train is reported to have impacted at about 21 mph. Whatever the reason turns out to be why the throttle was advanced from idle and returned to idle in that last minute, PTC would have taken over and, with a high degree of probability, prevented the death of the hapless passenger standing on the platform waiting for her train, not to mention the dozens of people injured.

I have been writing on this subject for a very long time. As a lawyer who represents passengers killed or injured in train crashes, I have, over and over, been virtually begging the authorities to take action and require installation of PTC on every route where passengers or dangerous freight are transported by rail. I find myself doing it yet again, and fear that this nightmare will not stop anytime soon.

It is high time we put this groundhog back in its burrow, and finally break the cycle of death and destruction.



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