Asking the difficult question

Written by David Schanoes, Contributing Editor

You know what? I kind of like National Transportation Safety Board member Earl F. Weener, who has been an NTSB member since 2010.

I can imagine Weener as a railroad superintendent, appearing to be just a bit slow, and using that appearance to disarm those to whom he’s going to ask the difficult question; the question you, who’ve been called into the superintendent’s office, are dreading; the question to which the superintendent already knows the answer.

The difficult question and the answer becomes an issue when something happens you didn’t think was your responsibility because nobody thought it was his or her responsibility. Turns out of course, the slow-speaking, verbally disheveled superintendent has a mind like a steel trap. He or she has got a good memory. He or she has been through this before, and reliving lapses in responsibility doesn’t make him or her happy.

Member Weener asks the difficult question day one of NTSB’s two-day inquiry into managing safety on passenger railroads, regarding the Dec. 18, 2017 overspeed derailment of Amtrak 501 at MP 19.8 on the Point Defiance Bypass near Dupont, Wash. The derailment occurred on a curve restricted to 30 mph that was bordered by a 79 mph maximum authorized speed section of track. Amtrak 501 entered the curve at about 78 mph.

At around the 7 hour, 20 minute mark of the video presentation, member Weener asks: “Who had the responsibility to point out or determine or take a crack at the mitigation of an 80-mph to 30-mph curve?”

Nobody answered. Not Sound Transit. Not Washington State DOT. Not Amtrak, which had experienced an overspeed derailment at Frankford Curve on the Northeast Corridor in 2015 that resulted in numerous fatalities and injuries. Not the Federal Railroad Administration, which had issued Safety Advisories and Emergency Orders about track sections requiring dramatic decelerations.

Nobody—to which silence our crusty but ever-so-wise superintendent/NTSB member responds, thus raising the silence to a deafening roar, “I was afraid of that.”

Despite all the consultants signing off on this and that; despite all the documents stamped and approved; despite all the so-called risk assessments; despite all the so-called safety management plans, nobody had the responsibility for thinking ahead of the train.

That’s not all you need to know about this accident. You need to know 501’s locomotive engineer was afforded two round-trip observation runs and a single qualifying run ten days prior to actually operating for the first time over the track. But without knowing that, you’ll learn nothing about safe train operations.

Think ahead of the train. It saves lives.

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 10% planning plus 90% 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.”

Tags: , , , ,