Hoboken crash highlights train travel’s unseen world of risks

There is a courtesy in air travel so commonplace as to be nearly unnoticeable: the formal goodbye outside the cockpit where the passengers get to thanks, smile at — or ignore, if they prefer — the man or woman who has gotten them safely in the air and down again.

The line of greeting resembles a preacher saying goodbye to the congregants after worship. It even features a glimpse into the inner sanctum of the cockpit, where all the command decisions occur.

Such a ritual is entirely absent in rail travel, a much older form of transportation which paradoxically “feels” safer because it is anchored to the ground and less physically mysterious, though statistically more dangerous than flight and one where the safety of the passengers is also in the hands of a captain with ordinary virtues and flaws.

The specter of “human error” now surrounds the crash of a New Jersey Transit train into the platform at Hoboken. Witnesses reported seeing the train barreling toward the station at an alarming rate of speed as it approached a bumper that marked the end of that particular piece of track. “It definitely didn’t slow down,” a passenger on the train told CNN. “There was no brakes. All of a sudden, it just crashed.”

At least one person died and 74 were taken to area hospitals, some with serious injuries, officials say.

While the causes may not be known conclusively for months (the National Transportation Safety Board reports are ponderous and exacting) the lack of braking before impact is often an indicator of driver inattention or incapacitation. This was the cause of the disastrous collision in Chatsworth, Calif. in 2008, in which a driver texting on his cellphone failed to heed a red warning signal.

Investigators also concluded that a 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia that killed eight and injured over 200 happened because the driver had become temporarily distracted by radio traffic and simply lost track of his rate of speed as he approached a curve.

The peculiarly isolated layout of a train — the engine hitched to the front or back while the passengers sit in their own sealed compartments — provides a metaphor for the distance the passengers must necessarily feel from the complicated safety mechanisms that hum and click out of sight: The maze of interlocked switches, signal towers,central train control and electronically governed timetables that ensure their journeys are completed without incident.

Stepping on board a train is like getting on a magic carpet with a genie. You simply let go of any rational reluctance and trust that you’ll step off onto another platform in due time.

Congress has been pressuring American railroads to adopt a system called “positive train control,” which was developed in Europe in the 1990s to help trains navigate different national networks. It enhances the magic carpet experience because it automatically regulates the rates of speed on curves and other sections of restricted track, and takes even more discretion outside of the hands of drivers.

New Jersey Transit did not have positive train control, and none of its employees was trained on it, despite an original federal deadline of Dec. 31, 2015. The date for adoption of the system has now been extended three years.

That’s too late to have prevented the shocking Hoboken crash in which the locomotive plowed into a busy station like a whale emerging from the sea, yet another image of an unseen world of risk that hums beneath the soothing clicks and clacks.

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