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Lets talk about the PTC MTEA

Posted on October 7, 2016 at 1:50 PM

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.

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