Forty years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board began urging railroads to design a way for a train to stop itself if the engineer “loses situational awareness”—that is, has a heart attack, falls asleep, gets distracted, or makes an all-too-human mistake. It wasn’t like NTSB was asking railroads to find a cure for cancer. As early as the 1920s, the Santa Fe rail line between Kinsley and Dodge City, Kansas, used a rudimentary system to stop a train if it passed a red signal. In the mid-1980s, in the Minnesota iron range, Burlington Northern successfully operated the first GPS-based system to stop a train automatically if the engineer made a mistake; it dropped it within the decade, to save money.
Railroaders call such technology—systems that slow or stop a train without human intervention when the engineer makes a dangerous mistake—positive train control (PTC). The modern version requires the train to be “aware” both of what it is doing and what is happening on the tracks ahead, using a combination of data radios, GPS, and cellular networks. If a discrepancy arises—a switch is open that shouldn’t be or the locomotive is passing a red signal—and the engineer doesn’t respond, the system takes control of the train, applying the air-brakes and shutting down the locomotive.
In 1990, the NTSB put positive train control on its list of most-wanted transportation-safety improvements. The NTSB, though, has no regulatory authority, so the five U.S. Class I freight railroads—Burlington-Northern Santa Fe, CSX, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and Kansas City Southern, all of which have annual operating revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars—simply ignored the agency. Only Amtrak responded, installing a type of positive train control on its Northeast Corridor trains in 2000 and a different version on some of its trains in the Midwest a year later. The Federal Railroad Administration, the railroads’ regulator, had the power to make the Class I’s fall in line behind Amtrak, but instead, the agency agreed with the Class I’s: Positive train control was too expensive.
In 2007, Congress finally got involved, passing a law mandating positive train control, but President George W. Bush refused to sign it. Then came Chatsworth.
As a passenger-rail engineer, Robert Sanchez was, quite literally, a train wreck waiting to happen. Clinically obese, with high blood pressure, enlarged heart valves, diabetes, and HIV, he may also have had sleep apnea, which can leave sufferers perpetually sleep-deprived. To make matters worse, his work schedule at Metrolink, the commuter rail service for the Los Angeles basin, seemed designed to leave a man exhausted. Sanchez started at six in the morning, drove trains until 9:30 in the morning, then started again at two in the afternoon and worked until nine at night—a 15-hour split shift.
Yet the issue on September 12, 2008, was neither his health nor his exhaustion. As he drove his three-car train loaded with passengers west from Chatsworth, Sanchez was busy swapping text messages with a teenage train buff about the supercool world of locomotives—a huge violation of company policy. Four days before, he’d had this text exchange with the teenager, whom the NTSB calls “Person A”:
Sanchez: Yea....but I’m REALLY looking forward to getting you in the cab and showing you how to run a locomotive.
Person A: Omg dude me too. Running a locomotive. Having all of that in the palms of my hands. Its a great feeling. And ill do it so good from all my practice on the simulator.
Sanchez: I’m gonna do all the radio talkin’...ur gonna run the locomotive & I’m gonna tell u how to do it.
Later texts suggest that Sanchez had indeed illegally let the teenager operate the train—two days before the accident—with passengers aboard.
On the afternoon of September 12, in the last 69 minutes of his life, Sanchez exchanged 35 text messages with the teenager. Focused on his smartphone, he missed a red signal that should have held him back from a single track shared by freight lines. At 4:22 p.m., the engineer of a westbound Union Pacific train looked up and saw Sanchez’s train coming at him at a combined speed of 80 miles an hour. The engineer hit his air brakes. Sanchez, texting until 22 seconds before impact, never touched his.
The collision drove Sanchez’s locomotive 52 feet into the first passenger rail car, killing Sanchez and all 22 people in the car. Two more passengers also died; 101 were injured. On the freight train, the engineer, conductor, and brakeman somehow all survived.
Television crews arrived fast, and the Chatsworth crash became, for the issue of rail safety, what 9/11 was to aviation security. It escaped nobody’s attention that had positive train control been in place at Chatsworth, Sanchez never would have reached the freight track; the system would have stopped his train at the red signal. Congress hastily revived the 2007 mandate and folded it into the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which flew through Congress in just 34 days. The president signed it late at night with no ceremony. The nation’s railroads were given until 2015 to install positive train control on the 70,000 miles of track on which passengers or toxic-by-inhalation chemicals moved. In the emotional aftermath of Chatsworth, neither the railroads nor the Federal Railroad Administration objected.
That came later.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.