I don't know if I've made the time, or the effort, to introduce you to my little friends, Richard Blumenthal and Charles Schumer. They are from the Northeast, straddling New York and Connecticut. They occupy seats, as well as office space, in the US Senate and various other locations.
Here is a short video presentation of Near Miss Dick, as I like to call Senator Blumenthal, at work pursuing railroad safety in spite of all obstacles. Say hello to my little friend....before it's too late.
Prior to 2013, you didn't hear much from Near Miss and Where's The Camera (my nickname for Senator Schumer) about passenger rail safety in the United States. In fact if you check the press releases from their Senate offices, as archived on their websites (going back to January 2011, when Near Miss Dick was initiated into the club, taught the password and given the secret handshake), you will find exactly ZERO announcements about initiatives in rail safety undertaken, supported, or applauded by Near Miss Dick and Where's The Camera.
Zero.Nothing.Nada.Nil.Zilch.O-zer.Goose egg. Big empty.
Regarding FRA's August 2012 report to Congress indicating that the mandated due date for PTC was not likely to be complied with by railroads? Nothing. No statement; no demand for an inquiry into the those responsible for the delay; no "heads will roll" nothing.
No announcement from either senator asking for an update on the progress and the timetable for installation of PTC on the passenger railroads that operate in the states of New York and Connecticut. Nothing.
Regarding the December 15, 2010 report from the US GAO Federal Railroad Administration Should Report on the Risks to Successful Implementation of Mandated Safety Technology? Nothing...from Schumer (Blumenthal had not yet been initiated).
After 2012-- well it's all about Metro-North, because after all Metro-North carries those who vote for or against the senators, but outside of that....
Regarding the June 19, 2013 GAO Report Preliminary Observations on Federal Rail Safety Oversight and Positive Train Control Implementation?
Nothing from the senators even though this report was released on the very same day Near Miss Dick was chairing a committee meeting on rail safety.
Regarding the August 16, 2013 GAO Report Positive Train Control: Additional Authorities Could Benefit Implementation?
Nothing. Zero. Nada.
But that doesn't mean the senators don't have important things to say about rail safety.
After the most recent tragedy, and tragedy it is, on Metro-North Railroad, the senators were interviewed by telephone.
I recognize this as a trememdous 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."
Near Miss Dick 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 on Universal Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) of the Federal Highway Administration. The manual stipulates that the flashers must activate to provide 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."
Hmmh.. OK 20 seconds, and the gates start their descent after three seconds so that's 17 seconds, and l have two tracks each 4' 8.5" in width, and 14 foot track centers, and the rail vehicles are 10'6 wide, so I've got about 25-26 feet of width which is going to take a car traveling at 20 mph one (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 1/4 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 fully horizontal position before checking for an obstruction? Or what if the driver goes around the gate after it is fully horizontal-- and drivers do 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, can require no 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 slouch. "We'll fix that," they say. We're US senators. We'll mandate additional warning time. The flashers must begin their warning 60 seconds prior to the train obstructing 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.
And sadly that-- making the situation worse-- is what's going on right now.
February 5, 2015
With thanks to WS, CS, and CA