A deadly train accident of May 13, 2015 in Pittsburgh, PA killed 8 people, injured approximately 200 and closed the heavily traveled railroad route between Philadelphia and New York City until May 18th.
Briefly: the train rapidly sped up to 106 mph just before a curve with a 50 mph speed limit; in the few seconds immediately before entering the curve, maximum braking power was used but the train started the curve at more than 100 mph; the train derailed.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who investigate such accidents, are attempting to determine why the train accelerated. The NTSB investigation was able to obtain data from a “black box” giving equipment information and a camera focused on the track ahead of the train; however, the NTSB investigation is hampered by the lack of video/audio cameras in the locomotive cab.
The apparent problem is that NTSB can make recommendations but the regulations are proposed and established by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), an agency within the U. S. Department of Transportation. Historically, the NTSB makes recommendations that the FRA promptly ignores.
Commencing in the 1990s, the NTSB has reportedly made dozens of recommendations for audio recording in locomotive cabs as it investigated one train accident after another. After the fatal 2008 train crash in Chatsworth, CA, the NTSB revised the recommendation to include video cameras, as well. Neither recommendation has been followed by the FRA.
The NTSB recommendations for audio/video recording in locomotive cabs have been strongly opposed by the FRA in order to protect railroad employees’ privacy and prevent railroads from using the data to punish employees. In addition, labor unions representing railroad engineers claim that the audio/visual equipment gives a false sense of security and one representative stated, “More than a century of research establishes that monitoring workers actually reduces the ability to perform complex tasks, such as operating a train, because of the distractive effect.”
Within the past few months, it appeared that the FRA was leaning toward implementing the NTSB’s suggestions; however, no regulation has been proposed and the movement from proposal to regulation can take years. Meanwhile, the NTSB must investigate the causes of railroad accidents without a vital source of information.
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