A tip of the hat goes to the LIRR for not screwing around. Forty-eight, or so, hours after the October 8 main line collision and derailment, blocking both main lines, damaging several hundred feet (at least) of track, the derailed equipment was removed, the track repaired, and service restored. So a tip of the hat is in order...
assuming you wear hats. I don't. Ever. And when I do, I deny it. In the midst of a blizzard or the hardest of hard freezes, I deny that that thing on my head is a hat. It's a form-fitting, sculpted GPS receiver and broadband connection. Want to watch the Knicks? Look into my eye....
Obviously, but obscurely, the NTSB didn't bother to show up at the derailment. Don't ask me why. I asked the NTSB and I haven't received an answer. Maybe because the NTSB is still occupied with the overspeed incident in Hoboken Terminal; maybe because nobody was killed; maybe because the NTSB has more confidence in the governor of New York than it has in the governor of New Jersey? Like I said, don't ask me.
I checked the laws, the law being Public Law 93-633, enacted January 3, 1975, section 304, Duties of the Board--The Board Shall--
(1)investigate or cause to be investigated (in such detail as it shall prescribe), and determine the facts conditions, circumstances and the cause or probable cause or causes of any--
(C) railroad accident in which there is a fatality, substantial property damage or which involves a passenger train.
''Any"... "railroad accident"... "which involves a passenger train." I think that includes the LIRR derailment. Maybe the NTSB is "causing" the accident to be investigated by the NY State Public Transportation Safety Board as an example in federalism? Maybe, but I doubt that. The last railroad incident investigated by the PTSB that I could find was in 2009-- at least that's what appears on the PTSB website.
Not that I'm complaining. No event recorder seized and spirited away to a secure, hardened location where Dick Cheney may or may not be resident. No equipment impounded. No vows of silence. No service suspended for an indefinite period of time while NTSB figures out how to....how to exactly what?
Most of all, no no-news news conferences, rodeos of reflectorized vests fighting for camera time and pixel space. It's all good. Isn't it?
But here's the thing: of the two recent incidents, the one at Hoboken Terminal and the one at Nassau 1 Interlocking on the LIRR, the one that represents the greater threat to safe train operations, the one that has the greater potential for jeopardizing the safety of passenger service, the one that requires a reassessment of "everyday" practices, the one that demands something, and a lot, more than the now knee-jerk reactions of "seat belts," "two persons in the cab," "inward facing video cameras," "PTC," and/or "C3RS," is the incident on the LIRR. Despite the absence of a fatality. Despite the lower number of injuries.
Why is that? Because of the the two, only the incident on the LIRR violates the organizing principle of safe train operations-- the prohibition against overlapping authorities for train movement.
We heard the governor of New York state that apparently the work train had "violated the space" of the passenger train. What was left unsaid is that this "violation of space," actually overlapping and conflicting authorities for movement, occurred within the limits of an interlocking where such overlaps and conflicts are mechanically, and electrically excluded unless the controlling logic of the interlocking, the controlling circuits, are damaged, defective, disabled and/or bypassed.
An interlocking, by definition and in its construction, is "an arrangement of signals and signal appliances so interconnected that their movement must succeed each other in the proper sequence and for which interlocking rules are in effect." "Signal appliances" means switches, crossovers, turnouts, and possibly split-point derails. Operationally this means , that when a route is established for a train, and the signals authorize train movement across the route-- the route is "locked in" and any and all routes conflicting with the established route cannot be established, and no movement conflicting with the established route can be authorized.
Crossovers switches cannot be thrown, or reversed, at either end if throwing or "reversing" the switch at either end of the crossover track presents a potential conflict, an overlapping of authority, for a "straight track" movement already authorized.
So let's set the scene: On October 4, 2016 the LIRR issued a press release that included the following:
The LIRR will be surfacing an area of track of the Main Line known as Nassau Interlocking, the junction where the Oyster Bay Branch joins the Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma and Montauk branches.
The passenger train was operating eastbound on track #1. Outside interlocking limits, and outside centralized traffic control territory, track 1 might normally considered the "normal track" for westbound movements, but in an interlocking, governed by signal indications for movement in either direction, there is no assigned direction, or "current" of traffic, as indeed, there is no designated direction of movement for tracks in CTC territory. For convenience of the passengers of course, trains moving from a designated point, like Penn Station will usually use one designated track, while trains moving toward that same point will usually be assigned to the other track.
So this train moving "away" from Penn Station on this Saturday night was operating on track 1 approaching, and through, Nassau interlocking. Track 2 was out of service for maintenance work.
Clearly, the passenger train had received signal indication to proceed into and through the interlocking. Most probably, the train was lined straight track 1, and proceeding at maximum authorized speed for operation through the interlocking.
How then could the MOW train on track 2 "violate the space," obstruct the movement of, and receive a lapping of authorities with the passenger train within the interlocking itself?
Only if a crossover switch connecting track 2 to track 1 had been reversed.
That can occur if the interlocking control circuits were defective, damaged, disabled, by-passed, for in essence the passenger train had received a "false clear" signal at the interlocking.
If those control circuits were defective or damaged, then Nassau interlocking should be out of service, trains moving through that interlocking should be moving only after receiving confirmation from a qualified employee that the route to be traversed is lined and locked, and then movement can be commenced with a speed restriction.
That leaves, disabled and/or bypassed. On October 21, 2012Amtrak train #350 was routed improperly from the main line and into the yard at Niles, Michigan. The interlocking signal with the signal indicated that the train was lined straight on the main line and authorized to proceed at the maximum authorized speed.
Train #350 entered the siding leading to the yard at 61 mph, traveled 291 feet before derailing, and then another 1148 feet after derailing.
The NTSB investigated that incident. The interlocking control circuits were not defective or damaged; did not cause or permit the misroute; did not produce the wrong signal indication.
Will PTC prevent repeats of this type of accident? Well here's one other thing-- that Michigan Line where Amtrak #350 was improperly lined into the yard-- that line was/is equipped with PTC, and the PTC was operating properly.
So...... so it's great that NTSB has enough confidence in the LIRR and MTA to let them handle the investigation of what remains until otherwise proven the worst-case scenario on any railroad at any time any where-- the false proceed. I hope this marks the beginning of a trend where NTSB acknowledges the leading role of railroads in investigating and preventing accidents.
However, railroads themselves are common carriers. They are "uneasy" combinations of business enterprises and public utilities. As such they are obligated to determine the cause, publish the cause, and publish the mitigating actions taken to prevent recurrence of such events. You don't get authority in this business without responsibility.
Either that, or we can wait until someone else, like the Congress, like it did after Chatsworth in 2008, tells us what to do. And how's that worked out so far... for the industry, for its workers, for the public? Good, you think?
October 13, 2016
'Larry, the summer is over. You're the mayor of "shark city". '--Brody, Jaws