Can Technology Prevent Crashes? Sensors Could Warn Trains of Cars

Experts say there is technology that may have prevented the Metro-North train crash. Brian Thompson reports. (Published Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015)

Sensors installed at a Connecticut railroad crossing more than a decade ago can signal to approaching trains if a car is on the tracks — a technology that could attract new interest after a commuter train smashed into an SUV outside New York City, killing six people.

The technology, a four-quadrant gate with a warning capability, was first used at a street-level crossing on Amtrak’s Northeast corridor when the high speed Acela Express trains went into use in the late 1990s.

- 6 Dead in Fiery Metro-North Crash North of New York

The quad gates system uses metal-detecting sensors installed in the pavement to detect a car on the tracks and alert an approaching train in time to stop, said Stephen R. Szegedy, a retired engineer who designed the system while working for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Six of the 11 street-level crossings on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor now use the technology, according to Amtrak.

- Timeline: Deadly Train Crash Latest Problem for Metro-North

Questions about how to make street level railroad crossings safer follow Tuesday’s deadly Metro-North Railroad in the New York City suburb of Valhalla. A crowded commuter train smashed into an SUV stuck on the tracks, dislodging the third rail. Five people plus the driver of the SUV were killed in the resulting fireball, making it Metro-North's deadliest accident, and about 15 people were injured.

PHOTOS: Dramatic Images of Metro-North’s Deadliest Crash A National Safety Transportation Board employee crouches down to get a better look at the front of a Metro-North Railroad train that collided with an SUV in Valhalla, New York, on Wednesday. Five train passengers and the SUV's driver were killed in Tuesday evening's crash about 20 miles north of New York City. Authorities said the impact was so forceful the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) AP

That first quad gate — which uses four gates to seal off the crossing — was installed at School Street in West Mystic, Connecticut, in July 1998, at a time when officials were discussing closing some street-level crossings due to safety concerns. School Street provided the only access to a commercial and residential area called Willow Point.

- "We Need to Get Out": Passengers Recount Deadly Metro-North Crash

The Connecticut Department of Transportation had been awarded an $800,000 grant from the Federal Railroad Administration for the project, and it contributed another $200,000 of its own money. The alternative would have been to re-engineer the intersection to avoid a street-level crossing -- a project that would have cost $4 million.

Before the gate went into service, Szegedy made sure that it worked with a test train and his own Audi.

“The car was detected and the test train came to a stop 400 feet before that,” he said. “And we proved that it did work. And it went into service.”

- Curator, Exec, Mom Among 6 Dead in NY Train Crash

In September 1999, Szegedy told the Harford Courant that School Street quad gate had alerted train engineers to vehicles on the tracks three times: twice when pickup truck drivers were caught on the tracks trying to beat the train and once when there were people sitting on the tracks as a train approached.

If a driver raises a gate and tries to cross the track, it could be too late for a train to stop, he warned.

A 2007 report by the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Research and Development found that the School Street four-quadrant gate performed as designed. Initial indications were that the technologies — the quad gates, the obstruction detection and the railroad cab signaling, which transmits data to the train — would be a valuable way to make crossings on high-speed rail corridors safer, the report said.

It also said that the more restrictive gate decreased risky behavior among motorists. And if a vehicle becomes trapped, the exit gates raise to the up position to allow the motorist to escape.

The Metro North Railroad did not immediately respond to a question about whether it had considered the technology.

Installing the technology in all street-level crossings would be expensive. Szegedy estimated in 2011 that the system would cost $1.2 million to $1.5 million per crossing. Connecticut alone has 53 street-level crossings on Metro-North tracks.

“We don’t put enough money in our railroads,” Szegedy said. “It’s an infrastructure system that needs to be brought into the 21st century.”

The cost of rebuilding street-level crossings are a state or local responsibility, said William Vantuono, editor in chief of RailwayAge Magazine.

Sometimes the work is done in partnership, he said, and pointed to a project to bring high-speed rail service between Chicago and St. Louis that is being funded by federal and state money. The work to allow trains to travel at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour includes adding four quadrant gates at street-level crossings.

There are 228,000 street crossings in the country, about 140,000 of them on publicly owned roads, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. About 53 percent of the public ones are equipped with active warning devices, but the administration said it could not say how many had quad gates. An active warning device could include a wide range of measures, from flashing lights or bells to warn drivers of a coming train to the high-tech quad gate system.

Augustine Ubaldi, a railroad engineering expert who works for the Pennsylvania-based Robson Forensic, said that although the safest way for a road to cross railroad tracks was over a bridge or through a tunnel, the crossings are expensive to re-build. There may not be enough land available, he said.

Drivers must be sure that they can clear the tracks before they enter a crossing, he said.

“If you do for some reason get stuck with the gate on top of you, by all means just keep right on driving,” he said. “The gates are designed to break away if somebody hits them.”

Collisions at the crossings have dropped by 85 percent from a high of more than 13,500 in 1978 to just over 2,000 in 2011, according to the administration. It attributes the dramatic decrease to engineering improvements, better enforcement of traffic safety laws and education of motorists. The administration estimates that 94 percent of collisions and 87 percent of fatalities are the result of risky behavior by drivers or poor judgment.

Connecticut's Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday that the crash showed that there was a need for continued progress on safety and reliability.

“This kind of horrific, terrible crash was preventable,” he said.

New York's Sen. Chuck Schumer called for a thorough investigation and answers as quickly as possible so that any needed corrective action could be taken.

Metro-North Railroad was criticized in a report by the National Transportation Safety Board after a 2013 deadly derailment plus four other accidents. The report found common safety management problems in all of the accidents.

Metro-North Railroad responded then that it was working to improve safety.

Train Vehicle Collisions

–Additional reporting by Khorri Atkinson.