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Put safety first on America’s railroads

The scene of a fatal NJ Transit train

The scene of a fatal NJ Transit train crash in Hoboken on Sept. 29, 2016. Photo Credit: Getty Images North America / Pancho Bernasconi

Is it safe to travel by train?

Experts and railroad advocates say yes. They note that enormous public attention is paid to every train crash because they’re relatively few, unlike car crashes, which are far more common. We are, they say, far safer as train passengers than when we travel by car.

But the rash of Amtrak incidents in the last two months is enough to give anyone pause. And then there are the federal findings released last week that a Long Island Rail Road accident last year, when a train hit a post at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, and a 2016 NJ Transit crash, when a train slammed into a concrete bumper at the Hoboken station, killing one, were predictable and preventable. Such poor safety records demand action.

Amtrak chief executive Richard Anderson said last week that railroads must create the same culture and intense focus on safety that exists in the airline industry. He’s right. Railroads have to improve technology on the trains and tracks, worker training and oversight. They need to minimize human error and problems such as fatigue that play roles in many crashes.

The MTA says it’s already testing 17,000 employees for sleep apnea. Of 9,729 employees screened, nearly 1,200 were diagnosed with sleep apnea. As long as the condition is treated, federal regulators say, an engineer can still drive trains. But sleep apnea screening isn’t required nationwide — an easy fix that could save lives.

But that’s not enough. When it comes to Amtrak’s series of fatal crashes in Washington state, North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina, and the incident last week of two Acela train cars uncoupling while speeding through Maryland, there are many lessons to be learned. Amtrak should prioritize adding technology like positive train control, a computerized monitor that can slow or stop a train if it’s speeding or not obeying signals. Other lines, including our own commuter railroads, have to install the same system. The LIRR and NJ Transit are still nowhere close to being done. Their deadline is the end of 2018.

Amtrak suffers from crumbling infrastructure and decades of reduced investment, and it faces the potential for new budget cuts. Instead, fully fund Amtrak, implement new technology and embrace a culture of safety that will give rail passengers more peace of mind.


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