Loco Motives

Crashes, derailments and explosions have rocked the rails recently. Headlines blare news of trains crashing into cars at railway crossings, tanker cars carrying oil exploding and, most recently, the Amtrak derailment that killed eight people and injured more than 200.

In response, the union for Amtrak’s locomotive engineers urged the railroad to put a second crew member at the controls. “The public would never accept an airline operation with a single person in the cockpit,” the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen said in a statement.

Amtrak hasn’t had a second crew member in the locomotive since 1983, two years after Congress passed the Northeast Rail Service Act of 1981, which ended the previous Conrail requirement that there be a second crew member in the control cab of commuter rail trains on the Northeast Corridor.

The union also questions why Positive Train Control (PTC) hasn’t been implemented. PTC is a safety feature that would automatically stop or slow a train to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed, unauthorized incursions by trains onto sections of track where maintenance activities are taking place, and movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position.

Under the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) mandated by Congress, PTC was to be implemented by the end of 2015. The railroad industry continues to postpone implementation of PTC because of the program’s complexity and expense.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested Tuesday that Amtrak at least place a second crew member in the locomotive until automatic speed control technology is fully implemented.

But experts are not all in agreement. A former NTSB chief railroad crash investigator questioned the idea of adding a second crew member, saying putting multiple crew members in a locomotive was “more of a distraction” than a safeguard and most likely would not have prevented the May 12 derailment.

As the American Automobile Association (AAA) has reported, conversation can be a deadly distraction. “Many believe that hands-free phones are safer than handheld phones. Numerous research studies, however, conclude that hands-free cell phones offer no significant safety benefits over handheld phones — hands-free is not risk-free.”

The former investigator, Ed Dobranetski, pointed to a 1996 collision outside Washington, D.C., in which a commuter train engineer was thought to have been distracted by a conversation with a crew member riding along in the cab compartment, causing a crash with an Amtrak train that killed 11 people.

“I’ve done accident investigations where either the conductor is asleep, inattentive or intimidated by the engineer, but 99 percent of the time the conductor only reminds the engineer of the speed or a situation. He’s rarely prevented something,” Dobranetski said.

Why has the rail system been allowed to go off track? The loco motive is money.

America has a special sentimental relationship with the railroad. It is the subject of a multitude of stories and songs. People drive and take buses the length and width of the continent and they jet around the world. But there is no such sentimentality about the automobile or the airplane. Possibly it has to do with the role of the railroad in “manifest destiny” — connecting America from sea to shining sea.

But since World War II, there has been a steady decline in rail travel. As ridership declines, so does the incentive to spend money on maintaining the system.

One railroad story, the legend of Casey Jones, was not a legend at all. Except for the fact that the real Casey Jones story is the stuff of legend. John Luther Jones grew up in Cayce, Kentucky, which gave him his nickname. At 15 he moved to Columbus, Kentucky, and began to work for the Mobile and Ohio railroad as a telegrapher. By 1891, he became an engineer. He also became a living legend for always getting the train there on time.

Railroad workers, passengers — and people in the towns his train passed through — all recognized his trademark train-whistle “whippoorwill call.”

On April 30, 1900, Jones took over for a sick engineer and was making up the hour-and-a-half delay. Then his fireman warned him another train was lying across the tracks up ahead. Jones told the fireman to jump and — one hand on the brake and the other on the whistle — he tried to stop the train.

It was the first time he didn’t make it. But there was only one fatality — Casey Jones. He died saving all the others.

In the absence of heroes like Casey Jones, we can only say that Amtrak must implement all recommended safety precautions — human and technological. And speed it up.

Most of all, whenever you ride, remember to say Tefillas Haderech. With kavanah.