As federal investigators begin the lengthy task of determining why a packed commuter train slammed into the Hoboken Transit terminal early Monday morning, safety experts are pointing to a long-overdue system which they believe could have prevented the tragedy.
That system, known as Positive Train Control, was mandated by Congress in 2008, but it has been on the National Transportation Safety Board’s wish-list for decades.
Problem is, it’s expensive. And transit systems across America have balked at its installation.
“Until you know the problem, you don’t know the solution,” said New York governor Andrew Cuomo. “Before we start to prescribe what could be a solution, we really have to define the problem.”
In its simplest terms, PTC is an eye-in-the-sky system, utilizing GPS satellites, radio communications and computers, to monitor the locations of trains with relation to switches, signals, and each other. Any train ignoring a signal or speed limit would be automatically brought to a stop before it could collide with another train or a station.
“PTC is really a backup to human failure,” says Debbie Hersman, the former chairman of the NTSB. “We know that locomotive engineers are human. They make errors, they get tired, they get distracted. They may have medical conditions, or they may become incapacitated.”
Hersman, the current president of the Itasca-based National Safety Council, emphasizes that it is still early in the investigation, and that other factors ranging from the possibility of mechanical failure or sabotage will have to be examined.
But she emphasizes that PTC is a proven system that should be on line now, nationwide.
“Safety delayed is safety denied,” she says. “When we don’t implement PTC, we’re going to continue to see events which could have been prevented.”
METRA was among the big-city transit systems which balked at the original 2015 deadline for PTC installation. That deadline was extended by Congress to December 2018. METRA officials say the safety system will go on-line with the Burlington-Northern sometime in 2017, with the agency’s eight other railroads added over the next three years.
The cost in Chicago? Possibly as much as $400 million.
Hersman concedes PTC is an expensive system. “But at the end of the day, we can’t put a price on human lives.”
“Look, I ride Metra. I love it,” Hersman says. “I value that service. But I also want to make sure that everyone who’s riding public transportation on the rails knows that if there’s a safety system— and we can do it, that we’re putting that first.