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.