Fatal rail incidents spur changes

Posted on January 11, 2007

In the wake of a Nov. 21 incident in which a passenger died after getting caught in the doors of a train, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has issued a safety advisory recommending that rail operators review their boarding and alighting procedures.

The fatality occurred in Bradley Beach, N.J., as a New Jersey Transit passenger was alighting from a train and got caught in the doors. The man was dragged by the train and died from his injuries.

The accident is being investigated by the FRA and state and local agencies. Cause and contributing factors have not been established.

The FRA said the electric doors on the passenger car are supposed to sense an obstruction when closing and automatically reopen. If the door does not close properly, the engineer should not be able to draw power to move the train.

But the FRA added that this safety feature can be overridden by a bypass switch in the locomotive or control car. The switch is normally sealed until used; however, the FRA is aware of instances on various railroads when this type of seal has been improperly applied, allowing the switch to be operated without breaking the seal. The FRA said this could result in the unintentional use or intentional misuse of the bypass switch.

The FRA recommended that passenger rail operators govern the override of safety systems, such as the bypass of an electrically powered door safety device, including each crew member’s role in assessing whether to override the device. It also recommended that rail operators have a crew member observe the boarding and alighting of passengers to ensure that the train is safe to depart a station.

Meanwhile, the deaths of two rail inspectors at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) also spurred concerns, leading to announced measures to protect employees.

One measure will limit the hours that track inspectors work on the rail line from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., while fewer trains are on the track.

Another measure requires track inspectors to call the operations center to alert officials when they will be at a rail station so trains can be slowed to no faster than 20 mph when they get within 600 feet of the workers. The trains will not pass until they receive a signal from the track inspectors and will not resume their normal speeds until passing the location where the track inspectors are working.

Additionally, flagmen will be positioned at the specific work site to let train operators know personnel are in the area. Track inspectors can also request to have a section of track closed until the inspection is complete.

“These are initial steps coming out of our investigation,” said Jack Requa, WMATA’s acting general manager. “We have worked very closely with the National Transportation Safety Board since Nov. 30 to develop stronger safeguards, and if we come up with additional ways to enhance safety, we will do so.”

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