The NTSB Wants American Trains to Be Less Safe

In 2017, an Amtrak Cascades train derailed outside Seattle. The train driver sped on a curve and the heavy locomotive derailed, dragging the trains with it, as had happened in 2013 in New York and in 2015 in Philadelphia. The primary culprit was the tardy installation of automatic train protection (“positive train control”), which would have prevented overspeed: the Philadelphia accident happened shortly before that section of track was scheduled to get PTC, the New York accident happened on a line with weaker protection against running red signals but not against overspeed, and the Seattle accident happened on a line not-yet equipped with PTC but with ongoing installation.

Despite the similarity, the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations, just released after a year and a half’s investigation, are different: it demands that Amtrak withdraw the passenger cars used. Those cars are tilting trains manufactured by Talgo, running on a waiver from federal regulations that have since changed. They are not what led to the derailment, and evidently the crash was less deadly than the New York crash (which killed 4) as well as the Philadelphia one (which killed 8). And yet, the NTSB wants these coaches removed where it said no such thing about the coaches used at previous accidents.

Rolling stock that is designed to avoid derailments at curves should focus on getting its center of gravity under control. Diesel locomotives have high centers of gravity, limiting their speed on curves. The standard measure for how fast a train can go on curves is called cant deficiency, and de facto has the conversion rate of 150 mm = 1 m/s^2 of lateral acceleration in the plane of the tracks (which may be banked, so the acceleration in the horizontal plane is larger). Top-of-the-line tilting trains in Europe can safely take curves at 300 mm cant deficiency, at which point the limiting factor isn’t passenger safety, but the complexity of maintaining the equipment’s tilt system. The Amtrak Talgos are less powerful – their tilt system allows only about 180 mm, but their center of gravity is so low that they could go much faster without derailing, just with a lot of passenger discomfort over the centrifugal force.

In contrast, the heavy diesel locomotive is limited to 6″ of cant deficiency, as its center of gravity is so high that going much faster could risk derailment, as indeed happened. Electric trains have no such problem – the Acelas do 7″ every day, and could have done 9″, but as with the Talgos the limit is passenger comfort and not train toppling. In fact, some non-tilting trains in Europe run about as fast on curves as the Amtrak Cascades service does, and FRA regulations from 2010 even suggest that modern non-tilting trains could do about 6″ of cant deficiency.

I bring all of this up to explain that the Talgos on their own, with a typical European locomotive, would not have derailed. Moreover, after the derailment, they stayed upright, unlike the Amtrak coaches in Philadelphia or the Metro-North ones in New York. The reason people died is that the train fell from a bridge. As far as factors that are controllable by the coach builder go, the Talgos performed well.

What’s more, the regulators who compared European and American designs for rolling stock have come to the same conclusion. This underlay the tests Caltrain used to argue in front of the FRA for its waiver to get rolling not compliant with the FRA’s then-current regulations demanding heavy trains designed around static buff strength; this would later underlie the FRA’s own rule change, now permitting lightly-modified European imports on American tracks.

So why is the NTSB so dead set against them? In three words: not invented here. The Talgos were designed and built in Europe. They are designed around European ideas of crash avoidance. Trains here have buff strength requirements too (and are too heavy as a result), but they’re much laxer than those of last generation’s American regulations, because at the end of the day lighter trains are no less safe than American tanks on rails. Lighter trains, designed to brake more quickly and not to derail in the first place, underlie the superior train safety of Europe to that of the United States – and Europe is downright dangerous compared with Japan, whose ultralight trains kill passengers in crashes at maybe 1/15th the per-passenger-km rate of American ones.

Foreign ideas threaten Americans, especially incurious Americans. Americans are not used to not being in the center of the world. They have many reactions to the fact that when it comes to transportation, the global centers of innovation are elsewhere. Some believe private cars are just superior. Others do not but still deny the need for trains, for example elements in tech media who cover Elon Musk as if he were God. And yet others assert that the US actually has amazing rail service on a variety of specious grounds – freight, safety, unique history. All of these are excuses made to avoid learning from foreigners.

The United States should treat its mainline passenger rail as a tabula rasa. Its ridership is a rounding error by European and Asian standards, and this is in large part due to the failure of management to modernize over the last few generations. An American regulator, investigator, or manager who neither knows how to adapt best industry practices, none of which is domestic, nor has any interest in learning, has no business working in the industry. Moreover, to reinforce the need to learn from the best, the NTSB should begin an exchange program with European and East Asian regulators; exchange programs among railroads in Western Europe, Russia, and Japan already exist, but to my knowledge American railroads do not participate in them.

The lessons from the Cascades crash are the same as those from the New York and Philadelphia crash, and drawing different lessons is prima facie evidence of irrational prejudice against foreign design elements that in fact work better than domestic ones. The people at the NTSB who authored the recommendation to get rid of the Talgos have just shown themselves to be incurious about practices in parts of the world with better rail safety. Thus, they should all be immediately dismissed from their jobs and replaced by people who are more informed. Any day they keep their jobs is a signal that the NTSB will be an obstacle to any program to make American passenger rail not only faster, more convenient, and more reliable, but also safer for passengers and employees.

24 comments

  1. Benjamin Turon

    The NTSB I believe as been quoted in the media, a NY Times article if memory serves, as wanting seat-belts on trains too!

    Safety Recommendation R-16-035
    https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/_layouts/ntsb.recsearch/Recommendation.aspx?Rec=R-16-035

    Buses and Trains Lack Safety Features That Are Standard Elsewhere

    QOUTE: “The National Transportation Safety Board has long recommended a variety of measures to improve passenger safety, including installing lap-shoulder seatbelts, requiring riders to buckle up and improving window safety and overhead baggage restraints.

    “Current safety standards for locomotive cabs and rail passenger cars are inadequate,” the N.T.S.B. said in February when it unveiled its “most wanted” list of safety improvements for trains. “Protecting passengers and crews from injury requires keeping rail car windows intact and maintaining their structural integrity during an accident, and includes occupant restraint systems, such as seatbelts, to mitigate the severity of passenger injuries.”

    “But regulators of Amtrak, Greyhound and a host of national and regional transportation carriers have generally not adopted the recommendations.”

  2. Clem

    By making trains “safer” (slower and shittier) these NTSB bureaucrats push more people to drive, which is at least an order of magnitude more dangerous than a Talgo ride. They increase the safety of their little corner of the world by making the rest of the world more dangerous. Idiots.

    • dhdaines

      This is a pattern in policy, and some would say society, in the USA. Perhaps they should change the country’s motto from “E pluribus unum” to “I got mine, f*ck you”.

    • Alon Levy

      They’re not even making their corner of the world safer! Would they rather get rolling stock that topples in derailments? I mean, clearly the answer is “yes,” but that’s not how they think about it.

  3. standupfortrains

    Ok if I post this as is on my blog. Listing you as author. Of course

    Rick Harnish Midwest High Speed Rail Association

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. standupfortrains

    And eblast it.

    Rick Harnish Midwest High Speed Rail Association

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  5. Max Wyss

    Talgo provided a pretty interesting document to the NTSB… definitely worthwhile reading.

  6. Richard Masoner

    Is there an action item to take to tell FRA to ignore the NTSB recommendation?

    • Alon Levy

      I think the FRA is ignoring it anyway? The problem is that WSDOT isn’t; my understanding from Twitter is that the Cascades are withdrawing the Talgos.

      • adirondacker12800

        There’s this thing called Google search. It found the website for the Washington State Department of Transportation in a twinkling of an eye. With a very obvious search box. I typed “talgo” and it found this in another twinkling of an eye.

        http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/rail/questions-answers-derailment

        They are taking four trainsets out service, not all of them. It also found all sorts of apparently intriguing links. I don’t do this for a living, I didn’t explore any of them. Amtrak probably has a press release too. And perhaps the NTSB? Instead you cite Twitter.

        • Alon Levy

          I mean, I’m citing the NTSB report on this. I could have cited Talgo’s response; I chose not to, for reasons like “I don’t always trust a corporation’s claim that its products are safe.”

  7. adirondacker12800

    Silly me, taking “my understanding from Twitter” to mean Twitter. I thought the valiant European trains were the bestest ever.

    WSDOT says they are taking four trainsets out of service. Wikipedia says there are seven. Five Talgo IVs and two Talgo 8s. I suspect they have four IVs that didn’t get damaged in the accident. Which leaves two 8s. Wikipedia says they are negotiating to buy two that were cancelled by Wisconsin. 5 minutes of asking Google the right questions instead of citing Twitter, I’m not the one trying to make a living at this.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      Nobody in the world gains anything from having this infantile troll shit all over blog comments everywhere.
      It’s your blog. Just stop it, at least here. It’s not as if he doesn’t have other outlets.

    • BenW

      So in other words, Alon’s understanding was correct, and WSDOT is following the recommendation from the NTSB report that the Talgo VI sets be removed from service.

        • BenW

          They are removing all of the trainsets of the model that NTSB recommended removing. They are not removing the two trainsets that NTSB did not recommend removing. No trainset that NTSB recommended being removed is not being removed; no trainset that NTSB did not recommend removing is being removed. The NTSB recommendation to remove a particular model of Talgo trainsets from service, in short, is being followed.

          The fact that you’ve hinged an entire attempt to make fun of somebody else’s research skills on being unable or unwilling to notice the difference between the numbers 6 and 8 (or VI and VIII, and never mind how IV got in there), is only slightly less weird to me than the fact that three different people have attempted to respond to it.

          • adirondacker12800

            He hasn’t said the NTSB recommended removing some of them. He “the Talgos” which, at best is ambiguous.

  8. Pingback: What Makes a Train Safe?
  9. electricangel

    Foreign ideas threaten Americans, especially incurious Americans. Americans are not used to not being in the center of the world. They have many reactions to the fact that when it comes to transportation, the global centers of innovation are elsewhere.

    Well, the people making decisions are settled bureaucrats. Recall Pournelle’s iron law of bureaucracy: “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”

    An old expression in praise of Mussolini is “He made the trains run on time.” As if this was a hopeless task in a country as disorganized as Italy. Well, I did some recent searches. The distance from Milan to Florence is about the same as Boston-NYC. The Acela does that distance in about 3:45, and the least I’ve ever paid for the ticket is $89. A recent check of Trenitalia.com reveals that the fastest train between its cities takes 1:39 and costs 42 Euros.

    We are a joke in rail transit; it would take us YEARS to even get close to Italy, let alone France or Japan.

  10. Nathanael

    Have you submitted this directly to the NTSB, as a certified-mail letter and a formal public filing? Because you should. They deserve to hear this earful DIRECTLY.

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