Why a Train Crash like Spain’s is Unlikely To Happen in the U.S.

Experts say safety precautions exist to prevent a similar crash on America's rails

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The train that derailed and crashed into a wall as it sped around a curve in northwest Spain Wednesday night is a harrowing reminder of what can go wrong at high speeds. At least 80 people died in the crash, and 178 were injured.

But experts say that U.S. riders have little to fear from the rails. Most trains in the U.S. don’t even reach the speeds at which the Spanish train was traveling before it derailed, and the higher-speed lines that are still few and far between in the U.S. are equipped with technologies design to reduce a train’s speed automatically as it approaches reduced-speed sections.

The Spanish train was not one of the country’s renowned high speed sets that run up to 192 miles per hour (mph), but was traveling on the same track and could reach speeds of 155 mph. It’s still unclear if the train was equipped with the speed monitors used on Europe’s high-speed lines. At the time of the crash, reports say the train was traveling 118 mph, or more than twice the 49 mph speed limit on the curve.

In the United States, where train travel is experiencing a “renaissance” according to a report from the Brookings Institute, the majority of passenger trains outside the Northeast don’t exceed 79 mph. That’s thanks to regulation dating back to 1951 that imposes a speed limit on tracks that don’t use monitoring technologies to control the train’s speed. Technological developments and additional regulation led 2012 to be the safest year on record for train travel, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The development of higher-speed lines in the U.S has lifted the limit for some trains, but they require the same speed-control technology that didn’t kick in or was absent altogether from the Spanish train.

The “Northeast Corridor” connecting the cities of Washington D.C., New York, and Boston, which is the U.S. rail line with the highest operating speeds, depends on the “Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System.” ACSES uses transponders along the track to send information to the passing train, according to Conrad Ruppert Jr., a senior researcher at the University of Illinois’s engineering school who spent 35 years working for Amtrak.

“Say a train were coming down the track at 120 mph, and up ahead a few miles is a curve that’s limited to say 50 mph. The system that’s in place in the Northeast Corridor conveys that information to the train itself and if the engineer does not begin to apply his brakes to slow down the curb, the system automatically slows the train down,” Ruppert said.

Japan’s bullet train, which now reaches up to 200 mph and uses a similar speed control system, boasts zero fatalities over nearly 40 years of operation, Ruppert said.

The Acela Express on the Northeast Corridor currently reaches speeds of 150 mph, though the White House has pledged $53 billion to create a national network of high-speed trains with similar or higher speeds.

16 comments
NAVYBOYUSA
NAVYBOYUSA

ACSES didn't work in the train crash that happened in New York... care to explain or ask Mr. Ruppert why?

Ontherocks
Ontherocks

And sorry, my previous comment didn't enter too much into detail. I lived for a total of 2 years in the USA. I know how public transportation works there. And don't get me wrong, I love the USA and consider it my second home. But just to compare the train / bus / subway system in Spain and the USA is like comparing Google to Altavista.

So this is what happens. The train was not a high speed train, so it is not mandatory to have the high speed train automatic systems. And this happens everywhere, not all trains have the computer based security systems.

On the other hand, due to the crisis we are "obliged" by the European Union to cut the budget in almost anything, including public works... so the line is not yet finished to allow real high speed train to circulate on it.

What I want to say is that it is very easy to write an article like this from far away without knowing the facts. Without knowing that the rail system in Spain is extremely secure, as it is the airline industry around the world, and yet accidents happen.

Ontherocks
Ontherocks

The article is amazing. Really, being from Spain one feel bad that there are still people in the US that consider themselves in the center of the world. 

What about this:

Why 8.583 homicides by firearms (2011) like the USA’s is Unlikely To Happen in Spain.


Tacomeat
Tacomeat

Seat belts would of kept the death toll down..

john.krats
john.krats

Many accidents with high death tolls have occurred over the years in the USA.

There are also many thousands of fatalities and injuries from grade crossing accidents that are simply ignored by the author.

There is no automatic speed control on most lines that Amtrak runs on that would prevent them from speeding.

Mr. Rayman must be one of those folks that likes to improve history via revision. I wonder if he works in the rail road industry?

cniblett
cniblett

Nice editing. Its "brakes," not "breaks."

grindermonkey
grindermonkey

Train accidents in the US are highly unlikely since the rail system has fallen into acute disrepair making the use of high speed rail impossible.  The future of high speed rail in the US is possible since the right of ways are well established but capitalist emphasis has moved the automobile to the forefront since it generates more revenue for vested interests: the petroleum industry, auto manufacturers with their Walmart-like sales structure and in particular the insurance  companies that have required policy  coverage in every state.  

roknsteve
roknsteve

It can't happen here?  It already has.  In California we had a train load of bombs go off in a populated area.  That area looked like a moonscape. 

boonskis
boonskis

European rail, even in Spain is FAR safer than the roads and highways in the United States, or elsewhere. First point, contrary to the claim here, rail accidents happen with remarkable frequency in the United States and Canada (Lac Megantic, trains colliding with semi-trailers) as opposed to Europe where they are relatively rare. The author of this story should know this. No, the same type of accident can't happen in the U.S. because we don't have trains like these, and we don't have the number of passenger trains as in Europe. In Spain alone, I read a recent report saying that the number of people killed in this incident is about the same as a typical "fortnight" across Spain on the highways. I agree with ersatzian below on this.


tvikr
tvikr

Even if such an accident would happen, the two passengers on the train have less chances of being injured. And then, they would sue the crap out of Amtrak.

ersatzian
ersatzian

I know that writers rarely ever get to choose, but this particular headline is silly, needlessly Americentric, and downright insensitive.  The editor should be censured.

RalphMarjorie
RalphMarjorie

but could a computer hacker get into the train system and stop the slowdown of trains at turns or speed it up???

eris0303
eris0303

@grindermonkey Acute disrepair?  I don't know about the rest of the country but I can testify that the rail system in the Northeast is well maintained.  Not only do I see the workers maintaining the tracks every time I'm on the train but my company provides materials that they need.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@eris0303

that's about the only part of the country in which rail travel is common and well-maintained

TenaciousJim
TenaciousJim

@cjh2nd The Northeast corridor is the only part of Amtrak that makes a profit.  The rest of the system is where taxpayers subsidies are in use.

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