Train crash might offer one brutal ray of hope

Monday morning's derailment of the Amtrak passenger train, which left carriages dangling from a viaduct south of Taco...

Posted: Dec. 20, 2017 6:54 AM
Updated: Dec. 20, 2017 6:54 AM

Monday morning's derailment of the Amtrak passenger train, which left carriages dangling from a viaduct south of Tacoma, Washington, was perhaps the most visually shocking US ground-transportation disaster since the sudden collapse in 2007 of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis -- which was classified as "structurally deficient" -- that sent cars tumbling into the Mississippi River.

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Though the train was traveling at a high rate of speed (80 mph in a 30-mph zone), much remains unknown about Monday's train crash, including an exact identification of its causes. But in history's gaze, it may come to resemble the Minneapolis disaster: It will likely lead to safety improvements just as the bridge collapse led to a gasoline tax in order to fund a bridge improvement program. We always take note of these disasters and -- though cause and effect aren't always obvious -- necessary reforms tend to follow eventually after the wreckage is cleared away.

The reflexive post-disaster response to improve and reform is perhaps the one hopeful note that may emerge from an otherwise horrendous crash that took the lives of at least three people and injured more than 100. A review of modern US transportation history shows that important modifications often follow a high-profile crash.

After a fiery oil train explosion near Casselton, North Dakota, in 2013, Congress and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration helped force rail companies to speed up a phaseout of the outdated DOT-111 tanker cars that were hauling crude oil at unprecedented levels.

The collision of a Metrolink commuter train with a freight train in 2008 near Chatsworth, California, is widely credited with convincing regulatory officials that a European safety system called positive train control was necessary for all passenger and hazardous materials lines in the United States. Congress set an initial deadline of 2015 for this to happen, but testing and implementation delays have pushed it back to December 31, 2018.

Amtrak reviewed its speed restrictions on tight curves after a driver lost "situational awareness" while in control of a Northeast Regional train outside Philadelphia in 2015 and approached a turn at 106 mph when he should have been going no faster than 80 mph. Amtrak also installed cameras on the engineers in all locomotives, a video version of the "black box" recorder.

TWA flight 800 exploded off Long Island on its way to Paris in 1996 when a bundle of faulty wiring created sparks that ignited the fuel tanks. It took more than a decade, but as of 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration now requires airlines to pump inert nitrogen gas into tanks to reduce the risk of combustion.

ValuJet 592 took off from Miami International Airport in 1996 carrying improperly stored hazardous cargo that caused a fire and sent the plane plunging into the Everglades. The FAA updated its regulations pertaining to hazardous cargo and fire detection and suppression for similar aircraft in response.

After 10 people died when a drowsy trucker created a chain-reaction crash on Interstate 44 in Oklahoma in 2009 -- and in response to many other questions about overworked truckers -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission put a 70-hour cap on the average driver's workweek.

After thousands of preventable deaths racked up from individual car crashes, Congress required auto manufacturers in 1968 to install seat belts in all designated seating positions. Through the 1980s and 1990s, most states began to require drivers and passengers to wear seat belts at all times. New Hampshire ("Live Free or Die") is now the only state where an adult driver does not have to be belted in. Researchers estimate that seat belt use among front seat passengers reduces fatalities by as much as 50%.

It is a brutal truth of the transportation business that change is often presaged with blood. As I detail in my book, the railroad industry, in particular, has a number of features based on past disasters that are taken for granted today: lighted signals, crossbars, airbrakes, control towers, even the timetables themselves that came about as a way to avoid head-on collisions. Every time an American passenger steps onto a train, they place their faith into the hands of an engineer they will never see.

As awful as the Cascades derailment was, history tells us that improvements will almost surely result.

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