Safer trains need two in the cab

In May 2015, an Amtrak passenger train derailed outside Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring more than 200.  The cause is still a mystery. The train was going too fast around a curve, but, according to recent news reports, federal investigators have not figured out why.

Another accident occurred outside Philadelphia on April 3 of this year, killing two people and injuring more than 30.

Two Amtrak routes run through New Mexico. The Southwest Chief runs between Los Angeles and Chicago, with stops in Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy (outside Santa Fe), Albuquerque and Gallup.  The Sunset Limited runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans, stopping in Deming and Lordsburg.

The state is crossed by several freight routes.  Freight trains can carry just about anything, including the most hazardous chemicals, with long lines of container cars moving faster than 100 miles an hour.

Once in a while, a train derails with disastrous consequences. In 2013, a freight train carrying petroleum derailed in Quebec, leading to a fire that left 47 people dead.

So you might think it would be dangerous to allow a train to be operated by just one person, the engineer alone in the cab.

That’s what I think, and I’m not alone.  There’s even a Facebook page called Spouses and Families Against One Man Crews.

Legislation was introduced in Colorado this year to ban one-man crews for trains traveling through that state.  The bill passed the House but not the Senate. According to the sponsor, Rep. Daneya Esgar (D. — Pueblo), 25 states have introduced similar bills and three have enacted them.

States have acted, Esgar said, because the Federal Railroad Administration had delayed adopting a rule requiring two-person crews. That rule has now been drafted and was released in March for public comment.

After last year’s Philadelphia accident, we heard about a new technology called Positive Train Control (PTC) that can stop a train if the engineer loses control.  That’s good, but safety systems are supposed to be redundant – that is, more than one backup method.  The simplest old-fashioned backup plan is a second human being.

Commercial airliners have a pilot and copilot in addition to all the automation that can fly the plane if needed.  Why not trains?

Esgar wrote to me:  “I can bet that every day, there is a freight train running through each of our districts. Some are carrying coal, chlorine or oil, some are carrying hazardous waste … through our towns, alongside houses, some even near schools. Having two sets of eyes on the train at all times, keeps Coloradoans safe from potentially hazardous or even fatal accidents in our state.”

In New Mexico, our only recent fatalities have been on the Railrunner, the commuter line between Belen and Santa Fe.  These accidents have all involved people or automobiles on the tracks, too close to allow the train to stop in time.  They represent a different safety issue.

The engineer is alone in the cab on Railrunner trains, says spokesperson  Augusta Meyers.  They use a system of “alerter” buttons.   At higher speeds, the engineer hears a beep every 25 seconds and has to push a button to show he’s alert.  If he doesn’t, the train will slow itself down and stop.  At slower speeds, the alerter beeps every two minutes.

News reports say the commuter train that derailed in New York in 2013, killing four, did not have that system.  The engineer fell asleep.

The cost of one more crew member is trivial compared to the human and financial cost of a rail disaster.  Beepers are not enough.  Let’s have a second crew member in the cab of every train.

To  comment on the proposed federal rule, go to and enter FRA-2014-0033 in the search box.  The public comment period is open until May 16.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2016


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