Crumpled Railcars Led to Designs Saving Commuters’ Lives

The Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. railcars credited with saving lives during a derailment in Connecticut May 17 had crush-resistant frames developed after a 1987 accident in which cars caved in, trapping people who otherwise might have lived.

The Connecticut crash between two Metro-North Railroad commuter trains injured 76 people out of about 700 passengers with no immediate fatalities. Casualties would have been worse if lawmakers and regulators hadn’t acted to improve car safety in recent years, said a safety advocate who helped write the laws.

“Certainly we saved many, many lives coming out of that tragic crash” 26 years ago, said Joyce Rose, a former U.S. House staff member who helped write rail legislation. She’s now chief executive officer of Operation Lifesaver, based in Alexandria, Virginia, which works to prevent accidents at rail crossings.

Passengers in the Connecticut crash were protected by strengthened railcar frames and designs intended to absorb and dissipate crash energy through the structures, rather than transferring it to passengers.

Cars such as Kawasaki’s, which Metro-North began receiving in 2011, have corner posts that help them withstand crashes at high speeds without crushing like a metal can or piling onto cars in front. They also feature larger windows to help people escape in emergencies.

Maryland Crash

“This accident really could’ve been much more devastating without the standards, in this case for corner post strengths,” Martin Schroeder, chief engineer for the American Public Transportation Association, whose members include commuter-train operators, said in an interview.

The association, based in Washington, helps develop safety standards for passenger cars.

The trains that collided in Connecticut, after one derailed during evening rush hour and was hit by another traveling the opposite direction on an adjacent track, were going about 70 miles per hour (113 kilometers per hour) when they struck, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

The design changes, which have been made over the past two decades, were prompted by lessons learned from crashes including one in Chase, Maryland, on Jan. 4, 1987.

Sixteen people were killed and 174 injured when an Amtrak passenger train collided with a Conrail Inc. freight train, whose crew members had smoked marijuana and missed a rail signal, according to a safety-board report on the accident.

Almost one-third of the passenger cars Amtrak uses today are the same type that crumpled in that crash.

‘Landmark Collision’

The inability of the Amtrak car interiors to withstand a crash was one factor that led to the accident’s severity, the board said.

“That was a very landmark collision in the United States,” said Allan Zarembski, director of the railroad engineering and safety program at the University of Delaware. “That did bring focus on crashworthiness. One of the things crashworthiness does is it reduces the after-the-crash damage.”

The NTSB, in its report on the crash, recommended studying the relationship between railcar design and passenger injury and applying those findings to future designs.

The three lead passenger cars plus the two locomotives pulling the train were destroyed with the third passenger car crushed between the cars in front of and behind it, the board said in its report. More people would have died had the first passenger car, a food-service facility, been occupied, the board said.

Pinned, Trapped

“Many passengers were pinned or otherwise trapped between dislodged seats, luggage and structural members of the cars, yet some occupants were able to free themselves and leave the cars before rescuers arrived at the scene,” the board said.

Those Amfleet passenger cars that are as old as 39 years are the most common type of car in service on Amtrak today. The railroad has 473 Amfleet I cars as of December 2011, the most recent information available. The cars make up 30 percent of Amtrak’s fleet, which includes cars built as long ago as 1948, according to the fleet plan.

The railroad, which hadn’t bought new rail equipment since 2002, has 70 electric locomotives on order for the Northeast Corridor and Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania that meet current crashworthiness standards and 130 single-level long-distance cars, said Steve Kulm, a railroad spokesman.

Cracks, Weaknesses

Other safety advancements focus on preventing crashes by more carefully inspecting rails to detect defects that can lead them to break, Zarembski said.

Railroads drive ultrasonic machines along their tracks to inspect rail for internal cracks and weaknesses that might lead it to break. The higher the speeds on a section of rail, and the heavier its loads, the more often it’s supposed to be inspected.

Broken rail causes about 200 derailments per year, mostly of freight trains, said Zarembski, who has written a book on the topic.

A section of the eastbound track in last week’s wreck “fractured at a rail joint” and is “of interest” to NTSB investigators, the board said in Twitter postings May 18. Broken rail can cause a derailment, though the reverse is also true, Zarembski said.

Derailments involving passenger railroads are down 24 percent in the past decade and collisions have been reduced 77 percent, said Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates rail safety.

Evolutionary Change

Metro-North, overseen by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said last month it had put its 200th Kawasaki M-8 railcar into service out of the 405 it ordered in 2009. It’s receiving about 10 of the cars each month, with 54 percent of the trains on its New Haven line in weekday service being comprised of the new cars.

As of 2011, there were 7,193 commuter rail cars and locomotives in the U.S. with 658 on order, according to the public transportation group.

With rail cars designed to last about 30 years, many now in service in the U.S. don’t have the safety benefits of the Kawasaki cars. Safety changes to railcars generally apply to new vehicles, not to those already in service.

Railcar improvements have been “evolutionary,” Schroeder said.

The railroad administration, which regulates interstate freight and passenger operators, updated its crashworthiness standards in 2010. It said further strengthening passenger railcars would cost $4.1 million over 20 years, mostly for engineering and testing development.

High-Speed Standards

The agency is working on its new standards, called for under a 2008 rail-safety law. That legislation was passed after a Metrolink commuter train in Los Angeles crashed head-on with a Union Pacific Corp. freight train, killing 25 people.

The regulator is “very close” to issuing crashworthiness rules for high-speed trains that President Barack Obama hopes to bring to the U.S., and for trains operating up to 125 miles per hour, said Zarembski, a member of a committee advising the rail regulator on rail safety.

Amtrak, which plans to seek bids this year to replace its Acela train fleet operating in the Northeast, is seeking regulations that would allow it to use lighter trains than allowed under the current crashworthiness standards, Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman said in December.

Lighter trains would be justified because high-speed passenger services won’t share tracks with freight trains in the future, he said.

Existing standards apply to trains traveling as fast as 150 miles per hour. Writing new rules that relax railcar structural-strength requirements for faster trains “would allow for less use of fuel, quicker acceleration, a different performance profile,” Boardman said then.