Thursday, February 05, 2015

The right equipment is not perfect equipment

Written by 
The right equipment is not perfect equipment
After the most recent tragedy, and tragedy it is, on MTA Metro-North Railroad, U.S. Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) were interviewed by telephone.

I recognize this as a tremendous sacrifice by Senator Schumer because there was no camera. Since he couldn’t be seen, he realized there was no point to pointing his finger, and so he said, “It’s much too early to point any fingers.”

Blumenthal said the accident was preventable given “the right equipment functioning properly.” Exactly what that equipment is or how it properly functions was left to the imagination.

My lack of imagination, my knowledge, told me that Metro-North did have the right equipment, and it did function properly. The railroad even has witnesses.

The right equipment is not perfect equipment. The only perfect equipment to prevent grade crossing accidents are earthmovers, to construct tunnels or flyovers. Separation at grade is the only positive prevention.

Railroad crossing protection functions are determined by law, and by the Manual of Universal Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) of the Federal Highway Administration. The Manual stipulates that the flashers must activate at least 20 seconds before the train occupies the crossing. If the apparatus includes crossing gates, the gates must begin to descend no later than 3 seconds after the activation begins, and must reach full horizontal position no less than 5 seconds before the train is on the crossing.

So being the clever fellow that I am, I tell the Senators that I will install a crossing obstruction detector that will register when a vehicle is between the gates. This system will be connected to my railroad’s automatic cab signal/speed control system such that whenever the obstruction is detected, the cab signals will require the train to brake to zero velocity.

“OK,” respond the senators. “Do it.”

Hmmm. . . . OK, 20 seconds, and the gates start their descent after three seconds, so that’s 17 seconds, and I have two tracks, each 4 feet, 8.5 inches wide, and 14-foot track centers, and the rail vehicles are 10 feet, 6 inches wide, so I’ve got about 25-26 feet of width that is going to take a car traveling at 20 mph 1 second to clear . . . so at 16 seconds into the activation, if the detector detects an obstruction, the message is sent to the train.

The train receives the message and processes it (sounding an audible indicator to the engineer) at 15 seconds; the engineer takes 1 second to respond and begin braking the train. The engineer will make a full service application of the train brakes. The brakes will set up completely at 14 seconds, and 1 second later the train begins to decelerate at approximately 2.5 mph per second. Speed at impact? Zero? Not likely. Maybe 30, which is good as the energy of impact is reduced to one-fourth that of an impact at 60 mph. Still, we have a collision, and the death of the driver, and only the driver if we’re, pardon the expression, “lucky.”

What happens if the crossing is clear at 16 seconds prior to crossing, but not clear at 10 seconds? What happens if we wait for the gate to reach its full horizontal position before checking for an obstruction? Or what if the driver goes around the gate after it is fully horizontal—and drivers do that, all the time, don’t they? I’ve seen it, and more than once.

So now what? Obstruction at 10 seconds gives 8 seconds of braking time. Obstruction at 6 seconds gives us 4 seconds of braking time. In all cases we have not positively prevented the collision because we cannot.

The problem is that we are trying to make the railroad responsible for the actions of irresponsible people, in this case the driver of the auto, over whom the railroad has no authority, can exercise no supervision, and cannot require training.

We are not addressing the root cause, which is the irresponsible behavior of those within a safety-sensitive environment, but outside the safety requirements of the railroad.

Well, the Senators ain’t no slouches. “We’ll fix that,” they say. “We’re U.S. Senators. We’ll mandate additional warning time. The flashers must begin their warning 60 seconds prior to the train reaching the crossing. Problem solved.”

Technically not. If we initiate the warning earlier, we have done nothing to account for obstruction of the crossing when the train is too close to achieve any significant reduction in speed. Practically speaking, we have made the situation worse. Yes, worse.

Do you know what happens when vehicles and pedestrians have to wait much longer than 30 seconds (which by the way is the Metro-North standard) at a crossing with no train in sight? No? Well, I’ll tell you. The drivers and the pedestrians ignore the warning flashers and the bells and, eventually, the gates. That’s what happens. There’s video that documents this and it’s no fun to watch.

Sadly, that—making the situation worse—is what’s going on right now.

The thing we need to stress is that it's safer to count on stopping the car, not the train. What's the governing factor in road crossings? It's that the state, county, municipal authorities want as little interruption of roadway vehicle flow as possible. That's what drives this process. OK, if that's what they want, and mandate, that's what they get, and if they won't pony up the money for quadrant gates, or for grade separation, then they also get what none of us want—obstruction of the crossing by automobile and truck traffic.

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.”

Get the latest rail news

Rail news and analysis from Railway Age, IRJ and RT&S by email