Orange sunset in low clouds over railroad

2015 has been a terrible year for East Coast rail riders, earning the dubious distinction of being one of the most lethal years in recent memory, as there were multiple high-profile train accidents, responsible for hundreds of injuries and dozens of deaths. When tragedies of such magnitude occur, our natural response is sympathy for the human lives lost, and the countless related lives affected; our hearts go out to the friends and the families of the victims. There is a secondary cost, however, and while it may seem callous to point it out alongside the far more meaningful aspect, that of lives lost, it is important nonetheless. There is a additional financial burden, borne by taxpayers, which underlines the substantial problem of train safety. In the past, commuter railroad companies have been forced to payout tens of millions of dollars in legal fees and injury settlements, in response to crashes that were deemed preventable or avoidable in a court of law. What follows is a report on a spate of accidents that have occurred more recently, and the ways in which authorities will attempt to rectify this dangerous trend.

 

A Brief History of Recent New York Train Accidents

  • February 3, 2015: The deadliest crash in Metro-North history occurred in Valhalla, New York, when a commuter train struck a vehicle at a road crossing. Six people were killed, fifteen more were injured, and seven of these survivors were classified as “in very serious condition” by the medical staff at nearby Westchester Medical Center. In a nightmare scenario, a vehicle was trapped on the train tracks when a crossing gate descended onto, then lodged into, the vehicle’s rear. The woman operating the vehicle was among the six people killed. When the oncoming train (which was traveling at 49 miles per hour), collided with the entrapped car, hundreds of feet of third-rail were ripped from the ground, lacerating through the train itself. The car burst into flames, and the head car of the train also caught fire. The car was pushed approximately 1,000 feet up the tracks.
  • March 9, 2015: An Amtrak train, destined for New York City, collided with a truck that had gotten stuck on the tracks, in the town of Halifax, North Carolina. 55 injuries were reported, but no fatalities. The truck in question was carrying an enormous, oversize load, which caused the driver to experience maneuverability problems. This in turn led to the driver marooning his vehicle on the tracks, fearing that he would be unable to extricate the vehicle from danger before the Amtrak train arrived. Collision ensued, but the driver of the truck was unharmed.
  • May 12, 2015: An Amtrak train, traveling along a portion of the “Northeast Corridor” which spans from Washington D.C. to New York City, derailed outside of Pennsylvania. The train was attempting to take a curved section of track at 102MPH when it derailed. Every car left the tracks, and three toppled over onto their sides. 8 people were killed and over 200 were injured. This accident echoed a similar one which occurred on the selfsame curve nearly three-quarters a century before. In that accident, 79 were killed and 117 injured.

These accidents raise many questions about track safety. Is there anything that can be done to predict, and thus prevent, incidents like these from occurring? Are mechanical failures in train equipment inevitable hazards? Or can improved safety regulations lead to a decrease in their frequency? If mechanical error isn’t to be blamed, one must consider the human element. Is it ever possible to entirely eliminate the existence of human error? Or could ramping up training protocols lead to a safer, better breed of train operators? Certainly a concerted effort, which combined aspects of these safety measures, would lead to less accidents, and less injuries.

What we will focus on next, however, is positive train control. Many theorists within the industry believe that positive train control, implemented across 100% of trains, would most dramatically limit the frequency of accidents. In fact, some suspect that the accident discussed above, which took place in Pennsylvania, would have been avoided had a positive train control system been in place. As it happened, the train in question was waiting on positive train control implementation due to regulatory requirements. Other trains, which were running the Northeastern Corridor concurrently had positive train control installed, but sadly, that fateful train, at that time, did not.

 

Positive Train Control

Known as “PTC,” positive train control is, according to Wikipedia, a “system of functional requirements for monitoring and controlling train movements as an attempt to provide increased safety.”

AREMA, which stands for “American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association,” delineates the four particular characteristics of safety protocols which comprise PTC systems:

  • Train separation or collision avoidance
  • Line speed enforcement
  • Temporary speed restrictions
  • Rail worker wayside safety

Essentially, positive train control, through the use of GPS (the global positioning system), seeks to monitor the movement of a train, and then dictate feedback which could prevent the train in question from performing unsafe movements. For instance, imagine that Train X has a wireless PTC system installed. The PTC system would be able to forecast any dangerous curves that may lay ahead for Train X, and then, by assessing current speed, could alter the way the train proceeded. Either through use of a remote speed-governing apparatus, or by relaying important information to on-board conductors, a PTC system could ensure that trains do not take curves at dangerously high speeds.

In full, most PTC systems work collaboratively between the train itself, the on-board train operators, the supervisors charged with monitoring trains, and the track signals which are used to guide trains.

The only drawback of PTC systems is the estimated cost of mandated nationwide installation. Experts peg the cost of such a mandatory implementation at somewhere between 6 and 22 billion dollars.

 

The Facts and Figures

The following data was taken from the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis website, a comprehensive online database which compiles data on train accidents of all kinds.

  • In 2015, 763 railroads were reported on. This figure is down 12 from the previous year, as there were 775 eligible railroads in 2014. Sometimes, rail systems are decommissioned due to lack of profit generation. Other times, two previously separate systems are joined. These factors lead to a volatility in total track figures throughout the years.
  • In 2015, these 763 railroads have thus far reported 6,579 total accidents. If this number holds, it would represent a drastic downtick in total accidents, from the 7,175 reported in 2014. Any sort of incident, wherein a train malfunctions, skips the rails, or experiences a collision, must be reported. Therefore, the range of severity of these accidents varies widely.
  • There have been 10 train-related fatalities in the U.S. so far in 2015. Not yet in November, this number is already greater than the amount of fatalities recorded in the three previous years (Fatalities in the past three years: 2012: 6, 2013: 0, 2014: 3.)
  • The types of accidents in 2015, by number, goes as follows:
    • (Number in parentheses stands for the 2014 total.)
    • Derailment: 809 (752)
    • Collision: 85 (84)
    • Other: 231 (245)
  • The causes of accidents in 2015 were as follows:
    • (Number in parentheses stands for the 2014 total.)
    • Track failure: 316 (303)
    • Human factors: 414 (403)
    • Equipment causes: 156 (154)
    • Signal causes: 25 (37)
    • Miscellaneous causes: 214 (184)
    • Yard accidents: 659 (612)

Ideally, all of these numbers would skew closer to zero. Hopefully, with unilateral improvements being made country-wide, these figures will continue to decrease throughout the years.

 

What You Can Do

The MTA has put out some helpful safety information, which rail riders of all types should read over and put to memory. Of course, things like derailments and collisions are out of your control. But by remaining vigilant, and heeding the following advice, you can help decrease your likelihood of being involved in a train accident. Below is a recap of the MTA’s advice.

  • First and foremost, stay alert! If you are near train tracks, always assume that a train is inbound. Trains employ many warning systems (crossing guards, warning horns, flashing lights, etc.), but trains move quickly and are still capable of taking the unaware by surprise. By respecting the tracks at all times, it will be less likely that you’re taken unawares.
  • Always walk, never run. Do not bump, push or shove other train or subway riders.
  • Mind the gap.
  • Curiosity killed the cat. Which means, resist the impulse to lean over the tracks in an attempt to gauge the proximity of a train. Stay away from platform edges when trains are not in-station.
  • Do not approach moving trains. When boarding a train, wait for it to come to a full stop before approaching.
  • Never step down onto subway tracks for any reason. Do not try and retrieve your belongings if you accidentally drop them onto the tracks. Nothing you own is worth endangering your life! If you drop something onto the tracks, alert a police officer, or train / station personnel.
  • Cross train tracks only at pre-designated crossing spots, and never when crossing guards are down, or red warning lights are flashing.
  • Walking down train tracks is both dangerous and illegal. Trespassing on these grounds puts you at risk of arrest, and worse, puts your life in danger.
  • When driving, do not try to “beat” the crossing guards. Waiting for trains to pass is a hassle, especially if you are in a rush. But if you see the guards coming down in front of you, it is important that you stop your vehicle before the tracks.

 

Kaplan Lawyers PC

The New York City subway system is the largest in the world, by number of stops, with a staggering 469 stations currently in operation. (However, some of these stations are connected by transfers, and if you do not account for this type of duplicate, the figure stands at only 422 stations.) This complex network ranges through Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, though the numbers above exclude the standalone Staten Island subway line, which does not connect to the nexus servicing the other four boroughs. With so many stations in so many areas, almost all of New York City is reached easily and accessibly by subway. At Kaplan Lawyers PC, we realize that many of our clients rely on the NYC subway to get to and from work and their homes.

The Long Island Rail Road is a commuter rail that spans the length of Long Island, terminating in New York City’s Penn Station. Every week, over 333,000 commuters ride aboard the “LIRR,” making it the busiest commuter railroad in North America. The Montauk station is the easternmost railroad station on Long Island. A backbone of the island, the Long Island Railroad’s 700 miles of total track are populated by trains 24/7, 365 days a year. Featuring 124 stations, almost every Long Islander has a station that they can call their own.

Amtrak, a blendword whose component names are “America” and “Track,” actually services more than just America. Amtrak runs through every state in the contiguous United States save Wyoming and South Dakota and, additionally, runs through three provinces in Canada: British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. Like the Long Island Railroad, Amtrak also utilizes Penn Station as its New York hub.

The Metro-North Commuter Railroad, however, runs out of Manhattan’s other major train terminal: Grand Central Station. Known more commonly as the “Metro-North,” this train transports Connecticut residents into and out of New York City.

With so many train systems, comprised of so many individual trains, it is perhaps impossible to eliminate train accidents entirely. However, improvements in train safety systems, like PTC, and the evolution of train safety awareness should lead to a safer overall environment for rail riders and operators in the future.

If you have been hurt in a train or subway accident of any kind, it is important that you seek the counsel of a compassionate, capable, and professional law team. At Kaplan Lawyers PC, our attorneys have the experience and expertise necessary to win you the compensation you deserve. As you focus on recuperation, we can lead the charge in your case. Through the use of cutting-edge technology and tried-and-true technique, we will gather evidence and eyewitness testimony, build the foundations of your legal strategy, and maximize your compensation. Train accidents are harrowing ordeals, and you deserve to be repaid for not only the physical pain you’ve endured but the mental anguish you’ve experienced. For more information, contact Kaplan Lawyers PC today. Our consultations are a free and easy way to get started.