Monday, July 18, 2016

It can’t happen over there

Written by 
It can’t happen over there

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard or read or been told how much safer rail transportation is in Europe than it is in the United States.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard how “This (collision, derailment, overspeed, an accident due to poor maintenance or crew failure) wouldn’t have happened in (usually) Britain, France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland,” especially Germany and Switzerland.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that the Europeans use advanced train control systems like, although not identical to, PTC and therefore “it can’t happen there.”

But it can and it does. It has happened in the U.K., and it has happened France, and it has happened in Belgium, Italy, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

Why? Because not all lines are equipped with the ETCS (European Train Control) Level 2 module of the ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) platform. Why aren’t all lines so equipped? Two reasons really, or maybe three: money, time, and interoperability.

Does that sound familiar? It should. It sounds just like here.

Legacy systems present a formidable obstacle to development and deployment of a European-wide train control system.

Does that sound familiar? It should. Legacy systems present a formidable challenge to the development and deployment of a system wide train control platform in the United States.

Oh sure, passenger rail transport is safer in Europe, but the hew and cry in the U.S. isn’t about safer, it’s about safest. It’s about positive safety, zero tolerance, nothing but the absolute safety covering all possibilities for all trains.

That’s a lot of territory, a lot of possibilities, a lot of permutations, a lot of legacy systems to cover. Just ask the Europeans. They have to figure out a way to deploy an advanced train control system over territory where the most rudimentary manual systems are currently in use—derived from the old British STAFF “pass the baton” system called token-block, dating back to the mid-19th century; and the token-less version.

Both systems depend on human operators communicating the condition of the block to each other; both systems convey authority to enter the block to the trains without conveying any information regarding what is actually happening in the block itself, in the field, to the trains, rather than communicating the perception of what is happening by the office.

There is no field registration and communication of conditions of occupancy for following or opposing train movements. The block is presumed to be clear. The operators at either end of the block are supposed to know the block is clear before allowing a train to enter.

Sound safe to you? Certainly is … almost all of the time. Except when it’s not. Like it wasn’t in Germany some months ago. Like it wasn’t in Italy, some weeks ago.

PTC is what it is in the U.S.—expensive, delayed, complicated, algorithmic-based, GPS-using, wireless interface unit (WIU)-dependent—precisely because of the legacy systems; because it must enforce restrictions on train authorities for movement in territories equipped with automatic block signals, centralized traffic control and cab signals; and it must enforce restrictions on train authorities for movement in territories equipped with no signals, no fixed blocks, no centralized traffic control—our legacy system called “dark territory.”

The news hasn’t been good lately. Not good news in Europe, where commuter trains operating in opposing directions have been allowed to enter and occupy the same block at the same time. Not good news in the U.S., where on BNSF’s Southern Transcon two trains collided head-on near Panhandle, Tex..

According to the preliminary report of the NTSB, (released 16 days after the accident—a big step forward), the collision occurred about 0.5 miles east of the east end of the Panhandle Siding, where the eastbound train was supposed to wait at the stop signal, while the westbound train cleared into the siding.

The eastbound train passed the signal displaying “stop” at a speed of 65 mph. As is the case with the great majority of fatal accidents, this collision could have been prevented without the deployment of PTC.

Continuously coded cab signals supplemented by automatic speed control would have prevented the collision. Failure of the eastbound crew to properly acknowledge the “approach signal” and, within 6-8 seconds, initiate a brake application to reduce the speed of the train to the speed associated with that signal indication, would have triggered a penalty brake application, bringing the train speed to zero mph.

Practically, the signal design distance would have been sufficient to bring the eastbound to a halt prior to passing the signal displaying “stop.” However, even if external conditions ( oil or grease or tumbleweeds on the rail) reduced wheel-rail adhesion, and the eastbound “slid by” the stop signal, the approaching westbound train would have received an immediate cab signal indication requiring a brake application to bring the train operation into conformity with “restricted speed.” Given the distance from the entrance to the siding where the collision occurred, the westbound was already decelerating for the expected diversion, and the cab signal downgrade would probably have required a reduction in speed from somewhere in the range 40 mph to a speed of no more than 20 mph, a speed that would have made all the difference in the world. But …

Railroads have operated for years without cab signals and speed control, and the railroads have operated safely …. like token block systems have operated safely, until they don’t. And that too is part of the legacy system that amounts to an obstacle to the deployment of advanced train control systems. We’re safe enough, until we aren’t, and then it’s too late.

And then? Somebody tells us not to be more safe, but how to be the most safe the whole most safe, and nothing but the most safe. Everything else—the legacy systems that could be adapted so that we are more safe—they’re just obstacles to be ignored.




















David Schanoes

David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2008. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in the operating division, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is ten percent planning plus ninety percent execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That's not so simple.”

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