Via Rail Derailment: Modern train control system could reduce accidents

From The Toronto Star:

As rail investigators continue to sift through clues to the cause of Sunday’s fatal Via train wreck, one rail expert says it’s time Canada considered installing a computerized train control system being used in other countries, including the U.S.

Meanwhile, lawyers filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday against VIA and the CNR seeking $10 million in general damages.

About half of the roughly 70 passengers have indicated an interest in joining the action, said Toronto lawyer Ted Charney, who’s working with Windsor lawyers Harvey and Sharon Strosberg.

The claim was filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on behalf of Niagara Falls passenger Sandra Lundy, 60, and other passengers. Lundy “was very badly shaken up. A number of passengers ended up toppling on top of her,” Charney said.

Positive train control is a computerized system that can shut down a train remotely if the crew misses a signal and travels too fast on a stretch of rail or moves down an unauthorized track, said Greg Gormick, a transportation policy advisor with Peterborough Conservative MP Dean Del Maestro, who chairs the House of Commons All-Party Rail Caucus.

“What most people don’t know is (driving a train) is basically like driving a car. You need a signal to proceed or stop, and the crew is expected to respect that signal. But there’s nothing to ensure they do,” he said.

If a crew failed to respond to a signal, a dispatcher would see its progress but, currently, has not way to stop it.

Positive train control is being installed by Amtrak and other U.S. railroads and is also used in high-speed train systems in Europe and Asia. But it is very expensive, said Gormick, who has worked for several Canadian railways.

“It’s now being forced on the U.S. rail industry, and it could cost $10 billion to $15 billion to implement,” he said.

“It’s been a non-issue in Canada but positive train control is going to come here because it is being mandated in the U.S.,” he said.

The U.S. made positive train control part of the Rail Safety Improvement Act in 2008 after a commuter train near Chatsworth, Calif., ran a red signal, killing 25 people.

The Railway Association of Canada says accident rates have declined on federally regulated railways — by about 80 per cent between 2000 and 2010, according to spokesman Paul Goyette.

Last year, rail accidents dropped to 1,023, from 1,076 in 2010. Many of those were minor.

“Canada’s passenger and commuter railways are among the safest in the world. In 2010 they carried some 70 million passengers. Passenger railways (VIA, commuter rail services) registered 62 train accidents in 2010, five fewer accidents than 2009,” Goyette wrote in an email.

But safety advocate Emile Therien says rail safety has declined since 1999, when the government amended the Railway Safety Act that gives the rail companies responsibility for maintaining their own track and equipment.

It is only a matter of time before Canada experiences another disaster like the 1979 Mississauga derailment, said the past president of the Canada Safety Council in Ottawa.

That event, in which a tank car exploded and caught fire, near another car carrying chlorine, resulted in the evacuation of 220,000 residents.

Via Rail trains were operating normally Tuesday, including at the Aldershot station, the nearest stop to Sunday’s deadly passenger train derailment.

“Trains are going through a little more slowly, but they may be losing four or five minutes at the most,” said Via spokesman Malcolm Andrews.

But with only one of three tracks available while the investigation proceeded, GO service remained restricted at Aldershot until late afternoon, when the tracks were fully reopened.

About 160,000 people ride Via each year on the route between Toronto and Niagara Falls, where the ill-fated Sunday train originated.

The Transportation Safety Board released no updates Tuesday on its investigation into the derailment, which occurred while the train was switching tracks about 3:30 p.m.

Three engineers — Ken Simmonds, Peter Snarr and Patrick Robinson — were killed. Forty-six other people, including a Via service manager, were injured.

Five of the injured passengers remain in hospital. But Halton police say they have now accounted for everyone aboard the train, including some passengers who walked away from the crash site and found other transportation.

On Monday, investigators began downloading data on Via Train 92’s speed and braking from the train’s event recorder, an orange device that is often referred to as a black box.

It’s not known if human error was a factor in the derailment or which of the engineers was operating the train.

Although Robinson, a new Via employee, has been described as a trainee, a Via spokesperson said Tuesday that the Cornwall man, 40, had between 17 and 20 years experience operating freight trains.