Railroad Safety is Becoming a Hot Topic – Here’s Why

A recent report on CBS’s 60 Minutes shined a big spotlight on railroad safety. The report highlights several crashes over the past few years that some experts say could have been prevented if positive train control had been in place.

What Is Positive Train Control?

Positive train control, or PTC, is an advanced system that uses GPS and other technologies to prevent derailments by speeding trains, accidents from track switches being in the wrong position, and train-to-train crashes. Basically, it applies automatic braking in dangerous situations. The system was originally mandated by the U.S. Congress to be in place on all major railroads beginning in 2015. However, that mandate was later extended to 2020.

The mandate to implement PTC was originally put in place after a head-to-head crash between two trains in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people and injured 135 in 2008. Since that time, according to the 60 Minutes report, there have been 22 more train crashes that resulted in 29 more people losing their lives and over 500 injuries.

Cayce Crash

One of those 22 crashes that South Carolinians will remember was last year’s collision in Cayce between a CSX freight train and an Amtrak passenger train. The crash was caused by a track switch left in the wrong position and killed two crew members on the Amtrak train and injured dozens of people. Since the wreck, which safety experts said could have been prevented using positive train control, the system has reportedly been put in place on all major tracks in the state. The tracks are operated by CSX and Norfolk Southern. Amtrak also reportedly has the technology in place for its trains going through the state to interact with the system. The implementation of PTC is a positive step.

Other Rail Safety Concerns

While positive train control can stop many train accidents from happening, it can’t prevent all of them. Sometimes safety issues outside of what PTC can control are at play. One of the most common causes of fatalities related to trains are railroad crossings, where trains may crash with cars, trucks, buses and other motor vehicles, as well as pedestrians. Hundreds of people die each year in these accidents and hundreds more are injured. Sometimes the crossings are poorly designed, making it difficult or confusing for motorists to see approaching trains, and sometimes rail crossing arms malfunction.

Broken tracks, poorly maintained engines and railcars, mechanical failures on trains and additional dangers cause train wrecks and resulting fatalities and injuries. As exemplified by the Cayce crash, it isn’t only train passengers or people at rail crossings who suffer injuries or are killed. Train workers have a significant death and injury rate. Nationwide in 2018, 17 railroad workers died on the job and nearly 4,000 were injured, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.