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Could a $500 Gadget Have Prevented the Metro-North Tragedy?

A worker on the track gestures to the engineer of a Metro-North Railroad commuter train pulling into the Spuyten-Duyvil station in the Bronx, N.Y.

A worker on the track gestures to the engineer of a Metro-North Railroad commuter train pulling into the Spuyten-Duyvil station in the Bronx, N.Y. // Jim Fitzgerald/AP

Investigators are still studying what caused the derailment of a Metro-North commuter train on its way to Grand Central Terminal just over a week ago, killing four passengers and injuring 70 when the front cars of the train, traveling at 82 miles per hour on a tight 30 mph curve in the Bronx, jumped the tracks. According to a spokesperson for the operators’ union, the engineer allegedly had a  moment of “nodding” and woke up too late to avoid the wreck.

Though the proximate cause seems to have been human error, could technology have prevented the tragedy? Advocates of a federal mandate for an advanced speed-limiting technology called Automatic Train Control (ATC) have claimed just that. But such a mandate won't come easily: Delays in safety technology are an old story in American railroading, partly because of the multiplicity of lines and state jurisdictions. The Westinghouse Air Brake Company was formed in 1869, but its lifesaving system was not required by federal law until 1893.

Other critics fault the Metropolitan Transport Authority, which runs the Hudson line, for not installing “alerter” systems in every cab. (The derailed train had one, but only in the locomotive pushing it.) These send periodic signals to the operator, and in the absence of a response can halt the train safely; this is considered a more reliable version of the traditional “dead man’s pedal,” with which the Metro-North cab was equipped.

Railroads are conservative about new equipment because of the scale on which it has to be implemented. There is a long history of cost overruns, delays, and failures in complex projects of all kinds—not just in health care but in law enforcement and aerospace. And it’s possible that ATC, like other advanced safety systems, could introduce new hazards.

Aren’t there simpler and cheaper means to prevent excessive speed until ATC is fully implemented, and even then as a backup? Today’s advanced radar detectors are equipped with GPS and downloadable databases of known locations of traffic enforcement cameras and radar- and laser-equipped officers. Some can display the speed limit and the driver’s actual speed. The technology may already be almost complete for railroad safety warnings. If speed is unsafe while approaching a curve, a signal—loud enough to alert even the drowsiest or most distracted operator—could sound in time for corrective action.

What would it cost to repurpose an advanced radar/GPS device such as the Escort Passport iQ? Since GPS is already built in, the task would be to create a database the right-of-way and its speed restrictions as though they were a highway and to modify alerts according to the physics of trains rather than automobiles and trucks. Each morning the database could be modified according to track work and other safety conditions.

While military cost overruns for advanced systems are notorious, resourceful soldiers in the field have often been able to modify off-the-shelf products ingeniously. Maybe it’s time for the civilian sector to consider a few hacks of its own.

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