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Lets talk about the PTC MTEA

Posted on October 7, 2016 at 1:50 PM Comments comments (301)

It's been a while since I posted a blog. Blame business, blame ennui, blame me. Sadly, another tragic accident brings me back to my keyboard.

For the last year, I have been working with one of the large Engineering Consulting firms as a part time project manager. This work takes me to both coasts, focusing on safety, including the implementation of PTC and preparations for revenue service studies.

Let me start by saying that the events of the past few years have strengthened my feeling about the necessity for the rapid installation of PTC on the nation's railroads. There have been too many accidents that could have been prevented had PTC been installed and in service. Yes, PTC installations are expensive, in some cases only marginally improving safety, and will definately reduce train throughput. But, PTC installations will reduce the incidence of accidents due to civil speed restriction disregards, violations of work zones, and inattention by train crew.

So what about MTEA?

Well, the current regulations permit railroads to implement a Mainline Track Exclusion Addendum MTEA) for sections of their trackage, typically in terminal or main station areas where reduced speeds are required. Many railroads have requested such MTEAs for areas such as Grand Central terminal, Penn Station, Jamaica Station, Los Angeles Terminal, and other location. All of these areas require reduced speed operations, typically at 20 mph or less.

Now lets take a look at the September 29, 2016 Hoboken Terminal accident. While this accident is still being investigated, the NTSB has just released data from the event recorder from the head cab car (the event recorder on the trailing locomotive unit was in-operative) that the train was operating at 21 mph just before the engineer applied the emergency brake and just before it hit the bumping block. The cab car continued past the bumping block, bringing down the headhouse canopy. , and stopping just before breach of the brick terminal structure. A woman on the platform was killed by the falling trainshed structure and 108 passengers on the train were injured.

It is amazing as to how much damage a train traveling at 21 mph can do. Imagine two trains, both operating at 20 mph, coming into a head-on or side swipe collision? Yet, under the current rules, such accidents can happen, on railroads within areas covered by the MTEA!

Now I recognize that implementation of PTC in terminal areas will be very difficult, and will most likely have a severe, negative impact upon throughput. But, a reasonable solution would be to reduce the allowable speed with such MTEA areas to 10 mph. Such speeds should be enforced by wayside transponders. On terminal tracks, wayside transponders should be set up such as to monitor speeds entering into the terminal track, and at least the half way point of the terminal track.

After a horrific accident at the Moorgate station in 1975, where a tube train failed to stop and smashed into the end of the tunnel killing 42, London Transport implemented what is known as "Moorgate Protection". It consists of a series of timing signals and train stops that monitor train speed into the terminal stations. An updated form of this protection system, using transponders could be set up as part of a PTC system.

Hopefully, the FRA will see the wisdom of this and will reduce the maximum speed in MTEA areas to 10 mph and require a type of "Moorgate" protection in all terminal trackage.

Why are we ignoring sleep apnea and other medical issues.

Posted on May 23, 2014 at 8:40 PM Comments comments (206)

It has been several months since I have last prepared a blog. My wife reminded me to do so a few days ago and I told her that I was still trying to formulate one. Those who know me can state that I am usually not at a loss for words, yet, I have been going back and forth in trying to provide a proper expression of my thoughts. The issue deals with the reluctance of the railroad industry and its regulators, to develop a comprehensive set of medical standards that would deal with sleep related issues. In many ways, this is near and dear to my heart since I suffer from severe obstructive sleep apnea. I am aware of the insidious ways this disease can cause lack of awareness, how it can distract one from the task at hand, and how it can affect one’s general health and wellbeing.

We are all aware of several recent incidents where sleep was a factor. We will never know for sure how many close calls occurred. But, I am confident that there were many such close calls. Much research has been done in the past years on the effects sleep disorders have on worker safety. The effects of shift changes, irregular sleep patterns, and sleep deprivation have all been well documented. Sleep disorders and their effect upon a person’s performance and overall health have been well documented and widely presented in both the general and specialist press. Yet the response of the railroad industry as a whole, and that of the regulating agencies, has been sadly lacking.

Coming from a railroad background, I learned at an early stage of my career that sleep was often considered an effete luxury by many railroaders. Many took pride in working long hours, dealing with erratic schedules, and treating fatigue as a weakness. I recall that after being diagnosed with severe sleep apnea, several senior managers teased me about my needing to sleep, implying that I was weaker for trying to do so. But, after a while, I learned that many of my colleagues and peers also suffered from sleep apnea, but chose to keep silent.

Several of my colleagues participated in several committees which explored various medical issues, including sleep and fatigue. Recommendations and proposed rules were developed, and were brought to a discussion level, with representatives of railroad management and labor. Some of these issues resulted in recent hours of service limitations and a requirement for analysis of passenger crew scheduling. Other requirements dealing with fatigue management are reported to be in the pipeline. Unfortunately, the proposals dealing with medical issues did not progress beyond a series of initial discussions. So far, it seems as if the effort stopped there. Despite all of the work, no further progress has been made and the medical issues efforts have entered the “back for further study and evaluation process”.

This puzzles me. The effects of electronic devices in distracting train crew have been recognized as being dangerous for safe operations and a considerable effort has been made to develop rules and regulations concerning their use by train crew. But, the use of these devices is strictly voluntary in that the crew member can choose to not use the device at all. But, the effects of a sleep disorder or other medical issue are involuntary and are usually not preventable by the individual so affected. I did not choose to fall asleep during meetings-I did so because my body needed to sleep and it did so whenever it could and at its own volition. Medical issues, such as sleep apnea, need to be treated as equally seriously as the issues with electronic devices!

One of the most critical of the medical issues is that of sleep disorders, specifically, sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is in the same league of potentially dangerous, yet readily addressable conditions such as diabetes, and high blood pressure. Once diagnosed, an individual can be placed on a remedial therapy and be monitored to ensure compliance with the therapy.

Sleep disorder diagnosis is not a simple matter. But, enough research has been done that certain factors can be used to predict a person’s susceptibility. As an example, for sleep apnea, neck size measurement, overall body mass, and blood oxygen levels are common indicators of susceptibility. Follow up exams can then be performed to verify a possible diagnosis and a remediation program can then be developed. Sleep disorder remediation not only benefits the operation, it also benefits the individual and his family.

I have been informed that some of the labor organizations feel that sleep apnea testing will lead to stigmatization or discrimination. An effort should be made to educate the parties affected on the impacts of untreated sleep apnea and the benefits of remediation. There is a lot of information out there on sleep apnea and its treatment. What needs to change is the attitude towards sleep issues and ensuring that everyone has good information about the causes, effects and treatment options.

A few railroads have started to look into sleep apnea testing programs and I applaud their actions. But, I wish that more railroads follow suit. I wish that some of the most vocal politicians adopt the cause of adopting stricter medical standards that include testing for sleep disorders and post diagnosis monitoring. I was disheartened when well intentioned, but ill-informed politicians pushed through demands for such dubious methods of improving safety as in cab cameras, but totally ignored the beneficial impacts of improving medical standards.

My hope is that the Federal Railroad Administration will prioritize the development of new medical standards that will include fatigue remediation and sleep disorder testing and remediation. Strict medical standards already exist in the aviation industry and there is no reason why similar standards cannot be implemented for the railroad industry. Such medical standards should also require comprehensive risk reduction methodology, including implementation of fatigue management plans.

In my previous blogs, I have pushed for solving human factor issues by using human solutions, rather that technology. This request for improving medical standards falls into that category.

As for my sleep apnea, I use a CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) machine every night. Such a machine is a bit smaller than a cigar box and the new nasal pillow system replaces the Darth Vader mask. I have begun a program to lose weight and monitor my blood pressure. I am aware of how serious the impact of this disorder is and am taking appropriate steps. I can only wish that the railroad industry and its regulators do the same. Let’s not wait for the next tragedy to occur before action is taken.


Why is history important to today's engineer-part two "the Wrong Type of Snow" and other excuses.

Posted on March 12, 2014 at 6:25 PM Comments comments (177)


If you have checked out my web site-and thank you for doing so !- you may have noticed the nice photograph of three Atlantic Coast Line diesel locomotives sitting at Harrison NJ in February 1958. While not only a nice photograph, it has a lot to do with the theme of this, my third blog.


If you look closely, you will see that these diesel units are sitting under an overhead electric power system. Normally, these locomotives would be exchanged for electric locomotives some 210 miles south of this point at Washington DC. So what are they doing this far north? The simple answer-snow of a type that was not designed for and which ended up crippling a railroad.


From February 14 to 17, 1958, the eastern United States was hit by several snow storms. One of the storms produced a very fine variety of snow-named “Diamond Snow” which was of a very fine, crystalline variety. The electric locomotives then used by the Pennsylvania Railroad on its electrified line between Washington DC were known as GG-1 units. All 139 of the locomotives had large air intakes which were used to send large amounts of air to cool the electric motors. In order to prevent dust, dirt, and snow from entering into the sir cooling system, the air intakes were equipped with filters. These filters worked very well, until the day that the diamond snow started to fall.


The snow particles were small enough to be easily ingested by the air intakes despite the presence of the filters. They proceeded to enter the interior of the motor cooling systems, where the heat melted them and then the water dripped onto the electric motors and shorted them out. Within a few hours, 138 of the 139 locomotives were disabled. In order to maintain some resemblance of service, the railroad used diesel locomotives for most of the route between Washington and NY, only changing power outside of Penn station since diesel locomotives were not permitted to operate in the under river tunnels.


After studying the problem and trying several different types of filter material, the railroad settled upon fine French linen filter material, along with using the then new epoxy resin to provide a better insulation coating on the motors.


The problem and the solution were widely reported in the professional press at the time, and many other railroads pre-emptively adopted similar solutions in order to prevent damage to their locomotives.


Now let us fast forward to February 1991and cross the Atlantic. The London area was experiencing an unusually cold and snowy winter. Many cars in the fleet of electric trains were experiencing failures in their electric motors, leading to massive disruptions. During an interview with a newspaper, a senior railroad official stated that British Rail was having problems with the type of snow which was not usually encountered in the UK. The newspaper man stated that it was “The wrong type of snow” and this remark was then mistakenly attributed to British Rail. Again, the snow was extremely fine and the existing air filters were not designed to exclude the fine crystals. Here again, the snow melted and despite the improvements in electrical motor insulation, the water dripping onto the motors caused short circuits which severely damaged the motors. Eventually some old timers remembered the 1958 snow storms in the US and new filter material of a type to exclude the fine snow was adopted.


Now let us fast forward to December 2009. A series of heavy snow storms affected the British Isles and France. Several Eurostar trains operating in the Channel Tunnel experienced traction motor failures while operating through the tunnel. Some 2000 passengers were trapped in the dark. The investigation afterwards revealed that fine snow was ingested into the air cooling ducts and between the heat of the motors and the internal heat of the Channel Tunnel, the snow melted, water dripped onto the motors and caused them to short out.


I think that you may guess by now where I am going with this! The winter of 2013-2014 has been one of the harshest in many years. Much new equipment has been designed and put into service on the railroads, and still, we hear of stories of equipment problems during cold weather.

Not all of the problems have to do with traction motors or fine snow. But cold weather has been around a long time. Railroads such as the Canadian Pacific, Canadian National, Great Northern, etc. have long operated during some of the harshest winters and managed to perform well. They designed their equipment with piping vulnerable to freezing being located inside equipment, heat tracing was applied on outside lines and several back up heat systems were used to prevent freeze ups. Yet, when new equipment is placed in service, it seems as if no one goes back and tries to see what was done in the past. Yes, diamond snow is rare, but it does happen. Below zero temperatures are rare in some areas, but they do occur. So why do we still have problems with equipment in cold, snowy weather? Why are exquisitely engineered cars built to the latest standards of rider safety knocked out of service because water gets ingested in their cooling systems? Wrong kind of snow? Wrong kind of cold? Wrong winter?


Anyway, another winter storm is upon us and I have to go out and clear my driveway of the wrong kind of snow. The kind that falls on MY driveway!


Why is history important to today's engineer?

Posted on February 13, 2014 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (173)

OK, this sounds like one of those essay questions we used to see on exams. But there is a reason why I bring it up. The other day, a colleague sent me a link to this web site:

It seems that there was a report of water entering a tunnel used by Network Rail in London. This line used to be know as the Great Northern and City and it was built at the turn of the last century as a tube line for use by full sized mainline equipment. After operating for many years as part of the London Underground, the line was transferred to the then British Rail and was connected to the mainline railroad system. Anyway, a non revenue train was directed to investigate the report of water infiltration and it proceeded into the tunnel, where it soon found two 13 3/4 inch steel augers, each some 6 feet 7 inches long and weighing close to 265 lbs., lying on the tracks. These augers, being used to bore holes for building foundation piles, had penetrated the cast iron tunnel lining. Luckily, the boring operation was quickly stopped and no significant damage was done.

The investigation revealed that the tunnels were not shown on readily available maps-the Ordnance Surveys- and a request to London Underground, the primary operator of underground lines-did not indicate that there was any London Underground tunnel in the area of the construction site. Of course, further investigation revealed documents that did indicate the presence of the tunnel, however, additional digging-no pun intended-would have been required to locate the documents that would have shown the presence of a railroad tunnel directly under the building site.

 Luck was with everyone that day, since the boring operation occured during the off peak and there was no train in the tunnel when the augers came through. Now imagine what could have happened if such an auger penetrated the tunnel while a train was present-especially during the peak hours? Further, of the planned 39 piles to be used to support the building, 19 would have penetrated the tunnel. Since the tunnel was not used on weekends, there was every possibility that additional holes could have been made, and pilings driven.  

The recommendation of the accident board was to require that Network Rail be involved in future development work in the London area, and that Network Rail provide information on its tunnels and related infrastructure to London Underground and various other agencies.

Of course, had any one knowledgeable about the railway history of London could have noticed that the proposed building site happened to be located above an active railway tunnel, then all of this could have been avoided, resulting in fewer costs for all involved.

Having worked for a railroad whose history dates back to the 1840's, I realized early on that knowledge of the railroad's history was very important to proper planning for any major construction efforts. It is amazing what items can be found when you start to excavate near the right of way. In my career, I was present when the following items were uncovered;a turntable, bridge abutments, forgotten, but still in use duct banks, elevated railroad foundations, wooden trestles that were backfilled with rip rap and then covered by soil, and an abandoned coal bunker. All of these surprises affected work progress and some resulted in expensive change orders. Now, not everyone of these could have been readily identified based upon a cursory search of the valuation maps, knowledge of the history of the railroad and a more dedicated search in the archives could have identified most of these 'SURPRISES".

Know the history does not mean that an individual must know exactly where and what was located, but rather having enough knowledge to raise questions. So if one was familiar with the past, the knowledge that a certain location was once used as a change over point from electric locomotives to steam locomotives should be an indication that servicing facilities for the locomotives would be nearby, and that large structures could be present. That knowledge should then trigger a more thorough records search as well as a request to the designer that additional soil borings or even test excavations should be performed before final design was completed.

Curiosity should be encouraged. Knowledge of why something was done can be of immeasurable help when it comes time to do construction in an area. Look at old maps, many of which show original topography and water courses. In the NYC area, a series of post Civil war maps of Manhattan island topography were prepared by a one armed ex Union General named Egbert Viele. These show the many water courses and original topography that in many cases was obliterated by the urbanization of Manhattan. A perusal of these maps helped to identify a long lost water course and its associated quicksand when a new substation was being designed. This finding resulted in a change in the foundation design before construction started.

I like to collect railroad history books. Not only do I find them interesting, I also know that sometimes some rather arcane information may make a critical difference in the design and construction of a project. A $60.00 investment can sometimes lead to a multi-million dollar savings. Of course, it would be nice if the multi-million dollar savings could end up in my pocket, but alas, that cannot be. But it does help me feel better about my contribution to the successful completion of a project and hopefully to more business in the future. I can live with that!




Transportation Engineering in the 21st Century

Posted on January 21, 2014 at 10:25 PM Comments comments (102)

Transportation Engineering in the 21st Century

Welcome to my new web site! This is my first Blog and I agree, the title is rather trite! But, I am new at this game of blogging and hope that you will bear with me while I get better at this and come up with catchier titles.


But what about transportation engineering in the 21st Century? What makes it different from the Transportation Engineering in the 20th Century? Or, as a matter of fact, in any preceding century?


The fact of the matter is that we have gotten smarter about all types of engineering-mostly! This smartness has a price of course and we need to keep this price in mind-always. Basically, we have reached the point where any advances in the field have ever greater costs and ever diminishing benefits. Mathematically, we are at the asymptote of the curve. Consider the percentage of improvement to be the Y-axis of the curve and the cost of implementation to be the X-axis of the curve. In an asymptotic relationship, the cost of a 1% improvement may be as high as 50% or a 100% or even higher. The curve has flattened out.


Lets look at an example. Much has been written about Positive Train Control(PTC), especially after the recent Metro-North tragedy. Having been with Metro-North for 27+ years, the tragedy struck close to home. Would PTC have prevented the tragedy? Of course. But there are many technical, political, and financial issues to be resolved before PTC can be fully implemented. Most of the remaining technical issues can be and will be resolved. Hopefully the issues involving the assignment of and the issuance of the necessary radio frequencies will become non issues if the FCC can get its act together. The political issues are harder to define and solve. Congress was quick to pass legislation to require the implementation of PTC. It has yet to pass legislation that would assist in the funding for the implementation of PTC. The result is that other, equally pressing projects have been deferred or cancelled in order to free up funding. Further, no one seems to be ensuring that other federal agencies involved with the PTC projects, as an example the FCC, have bought into the necessity of acting quickly to allow the deadline for installation to be met. Unfortunately, before the Metro-North derailment, our political leaders seemed to steer clear of the PTC issue and did little to encourage its funding or implementation. Now, at almost the eleventh hour, they have become advocates for rapid implementation, but without providing the necessary capital funding or the political pressure on the various branches of government to assure that everyone works as a team.


The financial issues are clear. Money, and lots of it will be required. Not only to build and install the apparatus, but to test and de bug the systems. It is one thing to announce that a system has been developed and installed, it is yet another to declare that the system has been fully tested, de-bugged and is safe for operation. My fear is that this most important step may be circumscribed in order to meet the deadline.


But wait you say! What about the asymptote? Ah-yes. The cost of PTC is great, but the benefits as compared to what we have? Lets go back to the Metro-North derailment. Could a cab alerter in the cab car have prevented the derailment? Very possibly, if it was installed in the cab cars and not just the locomotives. Could the existing cab signal system have prevented the derailment? Very possibly, if it was designed to take into account significant civil speed restrictions. Could better awareness of sleep disorders have prevented the derailment? Very possibly if greater awareness of sleep disorders and impacts of shift changes was researched and the results of the research were made available to and implemented by the railroads and the their staffs. Could better staff discipline and better supervision have prevented the derailment? Very possibly yes, in that better supervision has a way of improving train crew performance. So, yes, PTC could have prevented the derailment, but so too could have several existing systems and measures that already are in place.


Now all of the items that I mentioned could have been implemented prior to the derailment at a significantly lower cost than that associated with PTC and and in a significantly shorter time period. OK, you say-what about the asymptote? Well, the answer is that in today's 21st Century environment, we have to be smarter about spending money. Using only new technology to solve human performance issues is tremendously expensive and gives only a limited improvement. But using our existing resources in a smarter way gives us almost similar results at a lower cost.


That is the real lesson for 21st Century Transportation Engineering. We have to learn how to use what we have in a better manner before we start to expend more money on better technical solutions. True, some solutions such as PTC are inevitable, but there is no reason why we cannot get closer to the end result of PTC by better using our existing resources and having a back up during the inevitable testing and debugging process.


So, let us start to think about ways we can do what we do in a smarter manner. Lets drop the old "We have always done this this way and that is it" attitude and let us start to examine if the old way was the best way. Not to say that the old way was wrong-many old ways are indeed tested and proven and have little need to change. But maybe they can be improved or be better adapted to the new environment of limited funding. Let us start to better use the resources we have and to adapt them in new and innovative ways. Let us also back away from a desire to solely use technology to solve human behavior issues. Sometimes human behavior issues need to be resolved using human behavior! Better supervision, adherence to safety protocols and continued training and follow up have yet to be bettered as a means of improving performance.


Let me give an example. Back in the late 1930's, the New York Central Railroad had a series of rear end collisions on its lines that were equipped with automatic train stop apparatus. Investigation revealed that the accidents resulted from a practice known as "Running the yellow", where an engineer coming upon a yellow, or caution signal, would assume that it was due to a train ahead of him that was moving at the same speed. The engineer would come to the next signal and it too would be a yellow, thus reinforcing the assumption that the train ahead was moving at the same speed and that the next signal would also be yellow. Now the automatic train stop system gave a warning each time a yellow signal was passed and this warning had to be acknowledged. The engineers had come to develop a pattern of behavior where they would acknowledge the signal, and then proceed without decreasing speed. Of course, the inevitable occurred. Sometimes the next signal would be red, and the preceding train would be located such that the following train would not have sufficient space in which to stop. The New York Central was informed by the safety agency investigating the accidents that unless it began to better enforce the operating rules, the existing automatic train stop installation would have to be changed and a much stricter means of signal acknowledgement would have to be implemented. So the New York Central then devised a simple method whereby the speed recorder tape in the locomotive cab would have a mark made every time the engineer acknowledged a restrictive signal. It also commenced a program by which the speed recorder tapes were reviewed by supervisors on a regular basis. Once this program was implemented, the number of accidents involving "running the yellow" dropped to zero. No exotic technology was used, just a simple system modification and most importantly, proper supervision and follow up.


So let us beat the asymptote! Let us be smarter and better use what resources we already have. Let us not rely solely upon technology to solve our issues. A friend of mine, Dave Schanoes, who has a much better sense of railroad operations that I ever will, has said good railroading is 90% maintenance, 90% supervision and 10% good management. I like that math!


Have a good night!