The evening of January 5, 2005, was dry and cool in Graniteville, South Carolina. At 6:10, a 12-car Norfolk Southern freight train pulled up to the Avondale Mills textile plant, and Jim Thornton, a conductor with 18 years' experience, climbed down from the locomotive to open a switch and let the train roll onto a siding. It was getting close to the hour by which, according to law, the crew had to quit for the day and rest. After the workers had shut down the train, Thornton called a taxi to take him, the engineer, and the brakeman to a nearby motel. It never occurred to him that, for the first time in his life, he'd failed to check the position of a switch that he'd opened. All he thought, as the crew piled into the taxi was, "Lord, mission accomplished."
Seven hours later, a second Norfolk Southern freight train—two locomotives, 25 loaded cars, and 17 empties—approached Graniteville at 49 miles an hour. The engineer expected to pass through at full speed. Instead, the open switch shot him onto the siding. He saw the parked train and tried to stop, but it was hopeless. Both locomotives and the first 16 cars of his train derailed; the engineer was killed. Three of the cars contained chlorine, a common industrial chemical; one of them sheared open.
A dense white cloud of chlorine gas billowed through Graniteville. At 2:40 in the morning, police rousted 5,400 people from their beds and evacuated them. Eight more died; 72 sickened. The disaster helped push the Avondale Mills plant, which had been making cloth in Graniteville for 161 years, out of business. Four thousand people, some of them fifth-generation Avondale employees, lost their jobs. Seven years after the wreck, people in Graniteville are still sick.
Trains carry 40 percent of America's freight as well as 650 million passengers a year, and in general, their safety record is good and getting better. Most of the 2,000 accidents a year are minor. But when trains collide or derail, the results can be spectacularly ugly. Last June, two Union Pacific trains somehow ended up on the same Oklahoma track and collided head-on with such force that the locomotives almost fused. Three crewmembers died. Three weeks later, 17 cars of a 98-car Norfolk Southern train went off the rails in Columbus, Ohio, busting open three cars of denatured alcohol and igniting a fire that forced the evacuation of about 100 people. A CSX coal train jumped the track in Ellicott City, Maryland, in August; six of its 21 cars tumbled into a parking lot, killing two young women bystanders. In November, a Union Pacific train plowed into a Veterans Day parade float in Midland, Texas, killing four. Later that month, a CSX train derailed on a bridge near Philadelphia International Airport, tearing open a tanker filled with 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride and sending 71 people to the hospital.
Most worrisome are the 75,000 carloads of breathable poisons that trundle around the nation's tracks every year at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour. The two most common are chlorine—the Graniteville chemical—and anhydrous ammonia, both of which can kill in particularly grisly ways if inhaled. Graniteville was the country's worst rail accident involving breathable toxins, but there have been two others in the first decade of the 21st century: Minot, North Dakota, in 2002 (anhydrous ammonia; one dead), and Macdona, Texas, in 2004 (chlorine; three dead). At Minot, the problem was poorly inspected rails and inadequate tank-car construction, but at Macdona, the cause was as simple as at Graniteville: The engineer failed to notice a slow-down signal and blew past.
Could happen to anybody.
As bad as these accidents were, they could someday be remembered the way we recall the 1993 World Trade Center bombing—as a harbinger of worse to come. Imagine a railcar full of chlorine bursting on the CSX tracks less than a mile away from a big public event on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.—an inauguration, say, or a concert. The resulting cloud could kill 100,000 people. Al Qaeda might do it, but it's more likely that a $55,000-a-year engineer, in the 10th hour of his shift, would simply nod off at the controls. Human factors cause more than a third of all rail accidents.
Although the railroad keeps our 21st-century economy running, it's essentially a 19th-century technology. Rail operators have known for decades that technological fixes could prevent rail disasters caused by the kind of human errors committed at Macdona and Graniteville, but they have been dragging their feet because those fixes are expensive and complicated. Congress is now making them get it done. But the railroads could also cheaply and humanely achieve big safety leaps simply by improving the working conditions of engineers—something they're even less enthusiastic about doing.
Great article. Thank you.
'I think I can' not!
'I think I can' not!
It's amazing that there are any accidents these days with computers and monitors and central facilities. Just a really stupid industry if they have a single accident which there is no need for that if everything automated and tied in to a central core. Stupid people living in the 1900's still.
Air conditioned sheds? Sounds like an Electrical engineer's solution. Surely there is a passive solution that's more reliable and efficient than a window unit.
$10 billion + $850 million a year to maybe prevent 7 deaths and 22 injuries a year sounds like a system designed by a Congressional committee. How much would it have cost to install an image sensor and loud alarm that blares "YOU MISSED A RED LIGHT!" in each engine instead of the uber-complicated positive train control? The safest transportation system in the world, commercial aviation, doesn't have a positive control system. Why couldn't a similar system of transponders installed on trains suffice?
I believe because trains change length. Car's arent even the same length, so 2 trains 20 cars long won't be a consistant length. So if it transpsonder picked up a train a mile away how does it know how much time it has to stop? I've thought about it before because we have trains that tend to stop in the middle of town and depending on how long they are they will block intersections. The trains don't care, they just stop at the red light. The fun part is getting the front to know where the back is. Does every car need a sensor? Seems expensive. Designate an oversized standard for car size? (cars average 50 ft, so use 65ft x 20 cars = train length) Not very exact, but cheap and relies on correct information. Have a sensor beside the track to ping the front/back of a train and keep that info in the "train cloud?" Maybe, since they are investing so much in these light posts they could probably do double duty.
What is needed are smart robotic trains. A new global re-design that will automate all these error prone jobs.
Look what we're doing with the self-driving car and the train is already self-driving!
johnt007871, it was purely speculative, but what I was thinking about was a relatively inexpensive image sensor mounted at the front of the train (sometimes the engine is at the back), designed to watch for train signal lights that are red. It would measure speed, calculate for estimated mass (or number of train cars) and sound a loud alarm if the train is approaching a red light too fast to stop. It won't prevent all possible rail accidents, but it would minimize the risk of some. The point being that railroad travel in the U.S. is already remarkably safe and these complicated and expensive positive train control systems are unwarranted, given that not even the incredibly safe commercial aviation industry has anything like it.
As an engineer with 27years experience there is a lot in this article that has been addressed like cell phones are not allowed on your person at all.and the hours of service has been changed to prevent over work and sleep deprivation. On the northeast corridor we have cab signals that if you ran a signal the train would stop automatically so things are not as bad as they make it out to be.now that being said there is no excuse for crews not doing there job to the best of their ability like leavening switches open .that was a crew and dispature failure ,
If the railroads had applied targeted implementation, they would be facing much less expensive options. One would be commuter rail were fatalities are most probable. Putting laser scanning devises and cameras with train, car, and pedestrian recognition software, on commuter trains first. This is already done in self driving cars. Collision avoidance is in their future anyway, swallow a little pride call the car companies, or create a DARPA like x-prize for grad student to fix this for them. They could just throw money away until they implement the most antiquated solution. Only to have it replaced several times. They should also consider the rail as a possible network cable sending messages to sound boxes that tap out messages to other trains that pick them up by lasers reflecting on the rail. The rail is everyplace and can even communicate with a train in a tunnel. Either way we will do this again until we get it right, or we could plan how to do it cost effectively.
gimowitz, please re-read the article. The issue raised by the article is that the MAJORITY of the nations rail system is NOT effectively, adequately and accurately monitored.
Any system can be "computer-monitored" using one sensor. The question is then the value of the monitoring. Is one sensor enough? If not, then how many and where are they needed? Systems are rarely static. Most expand. Does the monitoring expand as well?
Remarkably, the writer of this column either failed to locate, or located but chose not to use, this significant report of the Federal Railroad Administration:
“Report to Congress: Positive Train Control Implementation Status, Issues, and Impacts”
Notably, from the Executive Summary:
“…this effort is hampered by the novel nature of the issues. PTC implementation, on the scale required by the RSIA, has never been attempted anywhere in the world.”
“However, since FRA approved the PTCIPs, both freight and passenger railroads have encountered significant technical and programmatic issues that make accomplishment of these plans questionable. Given the current state of development and availability of the required hardware and software, along with deployment considerations, most railroads will likely not be able to complete full RSIA-required implementation of PTC by December 31, 2015. Partial deployment of PTC can likely be achieved; however, the extent of which is dependent upon successful resolution of known technical and programmatic issues and any new emergent issues.”
Read the entire report here:
Further from the Executive Summary:
“Although the initial PTC Implementation Plans (PTCIP) submitted by the applicable
railroads to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for approval stated they would
complete implementation by the 2015 deadline, all of the plans were based on the assumption that there would be no technical or programmatic issues in the design, development, integration, deployment, and testing of the PTC systems they adopted. However, since FRA approved the PTCIPs, both freight and passenger railroads have encountered significant technical and programmatic issues that make accomplishment of these plans questionable. Given the current state of development and availability of the required hardware and software, along with deployment considerations, most railroads will likely not be able to complete full RSIA-required implementation of PTC by December 31, 2015. Partial deployment of PTC can likely be achieved; however, the extent of which is dependent upon successful resolution of known technical and programmatic issues and any new emergent issues.
“The technical obstacles that have been identified to date fall into seven different categories:
• Communications Spectrum Availability
• Radio Availability
• Design Specification Availability
• Back Office Server and Dispatch System Availability
• Track Database Verification
• Installation Engineering
• Reliability and Availability
“The programmatic obstacles fall into two categories:
• Budgeting and Contracting
• Stakeholder Availability
“To date, railroads have raised and expended more than $1.5 billion of private capital to try and resolve these issues. The Federal Government has distributed $50 million through the Railroad Safety Technology Grant Program. Solutions to these issues have either not been identified or cannot be implemented by the current December 31, 2015, deadline.”
Read the entire report and weep. The complexity of this endeavor, with the incumbent “vital” (essentially absolutely failsafe) technological requirements if even the marginal economic benefits are to be realized, virtually assures the failure of the project.
If the (worthy) objective of saving lives were to be optimized by Congressional diktat to expend $15 billion on railroad infrastructure, then surely PTC would rank well below isolation of railroad right-of-way to avoid collisions of trains with trespassers and motor vehicles.
I really think they should have automated trains
@Railronin; Out west it's different. We have some seriously remote places out here that crews have to get to in order to have a safe place to change out, and it happens sometimes that they just cannot get there. Road conditions happen.
Robotics? Automated Train driving systems?
ATP (Automatic Train Protection) and CBI (Computer Based Interlocking) systems have been around for quite a long time. They are very safe and avoid 98% of accidents like this, correcting driver's mistakes and bringing trains into safe conditions.
Why aren't these systems implemented in Railways yet?
Bombardier signaling solutions and Siemens' are used world wide
Late last year in Michigan a PTC precursor system failed to detect an open switch, a la Graniteville, and allowed an Amtrak train to enter at 60 mph causing a derailment and injuries.
This will not be the panacea it is proclaimed to be. First the technology to implement it doesn't actually exist yet. Second, as usual, the government is very good at making unfunded mandates but not paying for them. This will cost the rail industry billions, which of course will be passed on to customers, and ultimately you in higher prices.
Third, this will slow operations greatly as locked in spacing of trains will be enforced by the system. Dispatching flexibility is likely to be adversely impacted. Norfolk Southern is currently testing a PTC compatible dispatching system that is performing very poorly.
All this to prevent one or two major incidents per year that could be addressed by other far less expensive means.
The dead hand of government regulation apparent yet again.
Lets see $10 Billion to install and $850 million a year to maintain, all for a 2% improvement in safety, plus it doesn't work in urban areas. PTC isn't worth it! Whatever happened to the old KISS (keep it simple stupid)method. In all of the train wrecks mentioned in the front of this article, only three would be prevented by PTC. However, there are many lo-tech solutions that would have worked just as well. For $20-30 you can buy 2 way radios that can communicate over a distance of several miles. One fix for the red light is a lo-power radio transmitter directionally transmitting down the track so that when the light turns red the radio starts transmitting. When the train gets within range of the transmitter and the light is red, the locomotive picks up the signal and sets off an alarm (quietly at first, and getting louder over time(the same way my $9.00 alarm clock does)). Whatever the first actions of the engineer are to slow the train, would turn off the alarm. That would be a significant savings over PTC with better results (no problems in urban areas). As for the switch for a siding not being closed after the train entered the siding, a bright blue beacon light would fix that. If the switch is left to direct the oncoming trains onto the siding the beacon is on as a reminder it has to be switched back to allow traffic pass on the main track. Even if this did not get the crews attention and they failed to close the switch, oncoming trains would see the beacon and know there were problems and stop their train before a wreck occurred.
I could go on and on with lo-tech solutions and I'm sure there are many other ideas out there that would work as well as PTC yet cost only a fraction of that of PTC costs.
fieldrep, a lot of your suggestions have been in place for over 60 years. Lights and two-way radios even longer. Lights? Really? Do some research on how long a distance it takes to stop a train of the same tonnage as the one that night, from 49mph to a dead stop.
What worries me about your comment are your two opening sentences: "Lets see $10 Billion to install and $850 million a year to maintain, all for a 2% improvement in safety, plus it doesn't work in urban areas. PTC isn't worth it!"
Once again, people put money above safety. I find such an attitude disgusting. How much are nine human lives worth? How much is loosing an entire community worth, not human deaths, but their town and their lives as they knew it?
I grew up in Graniteville SC. I went back to visit once after the accident, and I haven't been back since. It is now a virtual ghost town. Why? Graniteville Company (bought out by Avondale in its last decade) had been in constant operation since 1845, even the original mill building was still in use until the very end. It just wasn't one cotton mill, but at least ten different large industrial complexes in and outside the town. It was virtually the only employer in town, large enough to draw many employee from out of town. It is gone.
An old high school friend died that night. He was very close to the accident scene. He saw the cloud of gas coming towards him, and apparently decided that it was too large and moving to fast to run. He was near a sizable water tower, the walkway surrounding the tank is at least 80 feet above the ground, so up the ladder he went. Unfortunately the tank was downhill from the accident site, and in a small valley-like area. He reached the walkway just fine, then was stranded there, and had to watch that cloud of chlorine gas slowly rise until it engulfed him.
How much money would you think is justified to prevent YOU from having to die that way?
Good article. One of THE most important things to note about trains traveling throughout America is that speed of the train carrying tons and tons of material by rail can be the most important issue of safety - up in the top five - along with the need of placement of dangerous materials, engineer training and alertness and others I have not named, as well. How many people living near a railroad track take it for granted that the railroad companies use the best standards of safety? How many railroad companies advise communities of the RULES of safety or what is being transported through those communities? You probably know the answer to that already...
There were actually 2 major train accidents back-to-back in Graniteville involving Norfolk Southern - one in November, 2004 (5 people were killed on an unmarked RR crossing) and the 2nd on January 6th, 2005 - that jolted our town and nearby communities into realizing just how dangerous living near the railroad track can be and how much we took for granted as it related to rail safety. Since that night of 2005, our state leadership and local politicians annually apply for the trains to receive a slow-speed moratorium for the trains to maintain a 25-mile-an-hour speed while traveling through Graniteville. However, that must be requested annually, since there appears to be no legislation on the books to ensure a specific safety rate of speed that the railroad must maintain while traveling through specific towns. Rate of speed and ability for the trains to stop tons of cargo is a MAJOR contributor in railroad accidents across the nation. That does not include the miles and miles of "dark territory" that the railroad companies travel, even after the years that railroads have been in existence. "Dark territory" applies to the miles of track that does NOT have up-to-date technology for engineers to detect problems along the rail line in America...Apparently, it is too expensive for railroad companies to get "up to speed" to today's world for the safety of the people who live along these tracks.
I want to thank Trevor for his portion of an article that is half - baked at best. For your information, PTC rules require zero information from the Grade Crossing Warning Devices. All of those silly little kids stuff suggestions are just that. You know what they say about ASSumptions? You are assuming there is only one train so your little radio will work. Are you kidding me? In urban areas there is no problem? You are assuming there is only one red light in the path of a train. What do you know about the new LED lights? Anything? Notagain, you have no clue what happened in Michigan and I do. 69er the rail has been the trunk line of information for 100 years. Lasers. right. They use that on a fighter plane, but they don't have to stop. duah.HMDZ all of those things are in use except the ATP you speak of. ? This is what PTC is basicly. It is very, very expensive. It is a gigantic undertaking and it will be done. It could be a little late in some spots, but it will get done. Almost all light rail, electric passenger trains have the ATP type system. DART, CTA, BART, etc. Anyone who says getting perfect radio coverage in an urban area is not a problem, simply knows nothing. My sympathies for the casualties.
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