12/09/2013 // NYC Attorney Jonathan C. Reiter // The Law Firm Of Jonathan C. Reiter // (press release)

As we await the results of the analysis of the black box data recorder that was recovered from the Metro-North commuter trained that derailed last Sunday morning, the question has arisen whether this incident could have been prevented with Positive Train Control, or PTC.

PTC is a federally mandated rail safety system for monitoring and controlling train movements to provide increased safety. PTC technology deters train wrecks caused by human error. It combines GPS, track-side devices, wireless radio and software into a monitoring system for train position and speed. It can slow or stop a train before a crash due to excessive speed or ignoring a red signal. In 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) counted PTC among its “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.”

In response to the September 2008 collision of a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train in California that killed 25 and injured more that 135 passengers, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 which was signed into law on October 16, 2008. One component of the law requires Class I railroads to install PTC systems on tracks that carry passengers or toxic-by-inhalation materials by the end of 2015.

While human error has been cited as a major cause of train accidents, PTC prevents many types of human error from occurring. With PTC in place, if a train engineer does not slow a train that is traveling at an excessive and unsafe speed, which could have been the cause of the Metro-North derailment, then the train slows itself. PTC uses digital communications, global positioning system (GPS) technology and on-board computers to monitor train locations and automatically overrides dangerous train movements. PTC technology can stop a train if the crew cannot.

Despite the benefits that PTC will provide, rail companies are now asking Congress for a five-year extension to implement PTC saying they face logistical and technical hurdles such as integrating complicated software systems and overseeing devices and tracks shared by passenger and freight trains.

Whether PTC could have prevented last Sunday’s derailment of the Poughkeepsie to Manhattan Metro-North train awaits the results of the black box data analysis.

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