Why It (Probably) Couldn’t Happen Here

I’ve been wrestling with the recent Spuyten Duyvil derailment on Metro North; other people have covered what we know about it much better than I could, and honestly there’s very little more to say in the face of a human tragedy such as this. I’ve been swinging wildly between despair and vitriolic anger, and had no desire to inflict any of that on you. But it does merit a few words here.

If you are looking for a good summary of the crash itself, I would commend you to The LIRR Today’s writeup, which is the best I’ve seen. I will not attempt to duplicate that work.

One thing worth saying, over and over again, is that an American is 13 times more likely to die by being struck by lightning than in a commuter train accident. The hundred or so people who were on board that Hudson Line train may wish to avoid trains in order to deal with lingering PTSD effects. But anybody not suffering psychological trauma, who switches from riding the train to driving a car out of unthinking fear, is being an innumerate idiot. And those news media outlets who included statements from ordinary riders suggesting that they might do so, without any pushback, should be ashamed of themselves.

What we know, is that Metro North train 8808(1) was going nearly three times the maximum allowed speed just before it derailed at a curve. What we are told by news reports is that the train’s engineer “zoned out” at the controls; this primarily comes from the engineer’s own union head, for whose unseemly haste to throw the engineer under the proverbial bus, the union was expelled from the crash investigation by the NTSB. So much for solidarity, although if the information is borne out to be accurate, I’ll appreciate the candor and lack of obstructionism.

The thing that’s kept throwing me into white-hot rage for the last two weeks, is that there’s a family of safety technologies that would almost certainly have prevented the wreck, called positive train control (PTC), and Congress has mandated its installation by 2015 on most American passenger-carrying railroads, including Metro North. Congress passed that law in the immediate aftermath of the next most recent fatal commuter train crash, at Chatsworth, California in 2008. Unfortunately, Congress didn’t take on the responsibility of paying for the safety system they had mandated, and so you have a wide variety of attitudes taken towards the 2015 deadline. Some railroads will either make the deadline or miss it by a tiny margin, because they made compliance with the law a priority. This group notably includes SEPTA, which dedicated a large portion of its meager and inadequate capital budget to fulfilling the mandate. Metro North, in contrast, will not be in compliance until 2019.

Meanwhile, singling himself out for especial disgrace, is Sen. Chuck Schumer, (D-NY), who in the days after the crash, hijacked the NTSB press briefings in order to stand at a podium in front of cameras… while having no useful information to give the assembled reporters. While I try to keep pure partisanship off this blog, I’m a progressive Democrat who likes Schumer’s ability to win elections for Democrats and then subsequently move legislation, so when I say that Schumer is a worthless slimeball who needs to no longer be representing New York State, or anywhere else where people ride transit, or otherwise have an interest in empirical reality over public relations, I am making a declaration against interest. Chuck Schumer needs to go away.

So I waver back and forth between wrapping this disaster, and the deaths of the four passengers, around the neck of a Congress more interested in grandstanding than actual safety, or MTA Metro North’s contempt for the law and the well-being of its passengers. A plague on both of them.

But again, this is the first incident to cause passenger fatalities in Metro North’s 30 year history. PTC would have only prevented five fatal train crashes in the US since 1987 (Chase 1987, Silver Spring 1996, Metra Rock Island 2005, Chatsworth 2008, Spuyten Duyvil 2013). Even without PTC, you’re still far more likely to be struck by lightning.

So let’s raise a glass to SEPTA, who seem to have gotten it right (modulo a silly track separation project on the West Trenton Line, that’s being funded by the Feds). They may not have much, but they do very well with what they’re given. PTC is already up and running on most of the system, and the $247 million installation is expected to be finished before the December 2015 deadline.

For the gory details on PTC, and further reasons why MTA management are even viler than I’ve made them out here, Alon Levy has the goods.

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  1. Regarding the comparison of the probability of death by lightning strike versus commuter train: is that based on the probability of any American being killed in a commuter train accident or the probability of a commuter rail passenger dying in a commuter rail accident? I only ask because I would like to know before repeating the statistic.

    1. Correct The First: it’s based on total deaths by lightning strike, as reported by the National Weather Service, vs. total deaths by commuter rail accident, in the US over a five year period. I thought about trying to normalize for number of Americans who had actually ridden commuter rail, but then realized that the vast majority of Americans have spent most of their lives in Faraday cages of various types, so I stuck to the broad measure.

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