Off the Rails

About 78 folks were on Amtrak Cascades passenger train 501 Monday morning. They’ll be late. At best.

I’ll be looking at what happened, new and old technology. Also how I see change and progress.

Changing Tech, Changing Rules

The South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company’s new locomotive, Best Friend of Charleston, took passengers “on the wings of wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour.” (Charleston Courier (December 29, 1830))

For a few months.

This was rapid transit in the 1830s.

We’re not sure why the locomotive’s fireman tied down the steam pressure release valve on June 17, 1831.

Some say he didn’t like its whistle, others that he was building a head of steam for higher performance. He wasn’t available for interviews later. The blast wave, or maybe shrapnel, killed him when the boiler exploded.

Altering pressure valves to boost performance was common practice in the early 1830s.

Tamper-proof valves eventually made boilers less likely to explode.

So did changing the rules for using the tech.

I’d like to think that prudence has become more common over the last 18 decades.

But I’ve noticed little or no change human wisdom over the last several millennia.

The good news, I think, is that we’re not getting more foolhardy. And we’re learning how to use or deal with our strengths and weaknesses.

We still change the rules, or make new ones, as our tech and circumstances change. (February 10, 2017; February 5, 2017)

“Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.”
(Mark Twain or someone else)

Running Late

I think technology is useful, and can be improved. But it’s not foolproof. Even the best-designed tech can’t prevent daft decisions.

For example, the Granville-Paris Express had been running late on October 22, 1895.

The engineer apparently wanted to make up for lost time by approaching a Paris terminal at about 40 kilometers an hour.

That’s 31 miles an hour, more or less: pretty close to urban speed limits around here.

It’s not overly fast, when you’re driving a car on dry pavement.

A train with nearly a dozen units is another matter.

Tracks ended in the terminal. Stopblocks, the sort of barrier called buffer stops in England, would have stopped a train that was barely moving.

The Granville–Paris Express went through the stopblocks and across a concourse. The locomotive eventually broke through a wall and fell to the pavement.

Four folks on the train and two outside the station were hurt. A woman who had been filling in for her husband while he collected evening editions was killed.

Two members of the train’s crew were fined: the engineer 50 francs for excessive speed, one of the guards 25 francs for being preoccupied with paperwork.

That’s not quite as trivial as it might seem.’s Historical Currency Converter (test version 1.0) says 50 1895 francs would buy about as much as $291.29 USD in 2015. But it still seems like pretty small change to me.1

Rushing to Help

(From The Seattle Times, used w/o permission.)

These are some of the people who rushed to help survivors of the Amtrak train derailment
Evan Bush, Steve Miletich; The Seattle Times (December 19, 2017)

“With Amtrak train cars dangling from a bridge above, soldiers, an Eagle Scout and even a neurosurgeon materialized amid Monday’s train crash to pull people from the gnarled metal wreckage, help with triage and provide comfort to victims whose lives were suddenly twisted and tossed into chaos.

Detective Chris Bailey, of the Steilacoom Public Safety Department, said nurses and doctors rushed from personal vehicles to help, men and women in business attire appearing with latex gloves or stethoscopes.

Witness Greg Mukai saw a half-dozen soldiers rushing from vehicles into the fray just after the crash, asking motorists for first-aid equipment. Bailey saw a soldier climb up a train car that was dangling from the bridge to help people get out….”

Folks don’t always respond well to unexpected stress, like seeing a train fall onto an Interstate. But when I start looking past ‘top news stories,’ I see pieces like this.

I figure that’s because wanting to help others is written into each of us.

It’s part of natural law: principles that haven’t and won’t change. How we deal with natural law depends on individual and cultural differences, and what era we’re living in. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 19541960)

I’ve mentioned the idea of reciprocity we call the Golden Rule a few times. (June 4, 2017)

Each of us has humanity’s “transcendent dignity.” (Catechism, 1929)

Books have been written about natural law, but the basics are simple. I should love God, love my neighbor, see everyone as my neighbor; and act accordingly. (Matthew 22:3640, 5:4344, 7:12; Mark 12:2831; Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2530; Catechism, 1825, 1929)

Simple, and anything but easy.

Numbers and Questions

(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Amtrak Washington train crash: Investigators focus on speed
(December 19, 2017)

A US passenger train that derailed, killing three people, was travelling at 80mph (130km/h) on a curve with a speed limit of 30mph, data from the train’s rear engine indicates.

It happened in Washington state during rush hour on Monday and officials say 72 people were taken to hospital.

A number of those injured are reported to be in a serious condition.

Authorities said all carriages had now been searched, but would not rule out a rise in the number of dead….”

This could have been much worse. Apparently seven vehicles were under the train when it fell. I’m surprised that nobody on Interstate 5 was killed. Injured, yes, but still alive a day after the incident.

I’ve heard different numbers for how many were hospitalized. That’s no surprise, since folks were taken to quite a few medical facilities. In their position, I’d rather have getting me to medicos a higher priority than filling out paperwork.

It’s still bad: for folks killed when the train derailed, those who are hospitalized, their families and friends. No pressure, but prayer couldn’t hurt.

It’s Not Simple

(From BBC News, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The Amtrak Cascades derailed at 7:33 Monday morning. When I checked on Tuesday, we still weren’t sure how many folks were in the train when it landed on Interstate 5.

At least three folks were killed in the wreck. That number could go up. Officials said as much, and it makes sense. Some survivors are in bad shape.

We’re pretty sure there aren’t any bodies, living or otherwise, inside what’s left of the train.

I believe it, but figure someone might have been on the ground when the cars stopped moving. Maybe someone landed in the trees, or managed to walk that far.

An NTSB Go Team is doing an on-site investigation.

They said it’d be wrapped up in a week or so. We probably won’t see more-or-less final conclusions for months, maybe a year. This sort of accident is pretty much the opposite of simple, so I don’t mind if the NTSB doesn’t jump to conclusions.

We’re learning that PTC, a new safety technology, was being installed in the train’s locomotive, but wasn’t ready for use yet. That doesn’t explain why the train was moving more than twice as fast as it should.

Someone with NTSB said they’d been recommending PTC be installed on all trains. Also that Congress had changed the deadline for putting their ‘use PTC’ legislation in effect — from the end of 2015 to the end of 2018.

I don’t know why the deadline changed. Maybe technical issues, too. The price tag is something like $22,000,000,000.2


(From Wall Street Journal, used w/o permission.)
(Amtrak’s Cascades: an unscheduled stop on its first run over the Point Defiance Bypass.)

Three Are Killed as Amtrak Train Derails in Washington State
Ted Mann, Alejandro Lazo, Zusha Elinson; Wall Street Journal (December 19, 2017)

“A half-hour behind schedule Monday morning on its inaugural ride along a new route, an Amtrak train carrying 77 passengers derailed on a tight curve south of Seattle, sending train cars into the woods and onto a highway below, killing three people and injuring dozens….”

Derailed Amtrak Train Was Traveling at 80 MPH in a 30 MPH Zone
Nour Malas, Zusha Elinson; Wall Street Journal (December 19, 2017)

“The Amtrak train that derailed in Washington state Monday was traveling at 80 miles an hour in a zone with a posted speed limit of 30 mph, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said….”

Investigators know how fast the train was going, thanks to an onboard data recorder. I’ve read that the actual number is 81.1 miles an hour, so 80 mph seems like a reasonable approximation.

Other simplifications I’ve seen in news coverage don’t seem so reasonable.

Quite a few were repeating the assertion that the train was going 80 miles an hour in a 79 mph zone. It wasn’t entirely inaccurate. Amtrak Cascades had been on a 79 mile an hour zone before derailing.

Posted speed limit where the accident happened is 30 miles on hour.

The Monday morning Cascades commute might have made local news, anyway.

Amtrak Cascades passenger train 501 was the inaugural southbound revenue service run on the new-and-improved Point Defiance Bypass.

Like the other BBC News article said, the train was about a half-hour behind schedule when it left the tracks. That may or may not help explain why it was going more than two and a half times the speed limit.

Wanting to make up of for lost time might be a strong motivation for someone on the train or in managemt who didn’t want bad publicity.

That’s speculation on my part. I don’t know what was happening in anyone’s head that morning. All that’s clear at the moment is that folks are dead and injured, and we’ve got more questions than answers.

I’m particularly curious about why the line’s new safety tech wasn’t used, and why the train was going so very fast. If either happened because of someone’s decision, that raises more questions.

I also don’t know how often speeding trains leave the tracks these days.

Maybe a non-fatal Cascades derailment a few months back on the old coastal route wasn’t unusual, or was a coincidence. That train’s engineer was suspended without pay. (Molly Solomon, OPB News (July 6, 2017))


(From Dennis Bratland, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The current Amtrak Cascades route is red.)

The idea behind the bypass was putting passenger and freight trains on different tracks.

It should have made shorter commutes possible. Safer, too, since the tracks now have PTC, positive train control. Or will, eventually.

I think PTC is a good idea, but it’s controversial. Some objections probably make sense.

I understand that Congress set their requirements in stone, so engineers and technicians can’t recommend changes that would improve performance. They can recommend, I suppose, but nobody’s going to take official notice. Congress has spoken.

It’s new tech, so I’m not at all convinced that legislators in Washington understand how it works, and what’s possible.

I’ll get back to how I see PTC and human error.

Robber Barons

(From Punch, via Victorian Web, used w/o permission.)
(“How to Insure Against Railway Accidents. Tie a couple of Directors à la Mazeppa to every engine that starts a train.”
(John Leech, Punch, (March 26, 1853,p. 126))

Some folks were getting fed up with train wrecks and exploding boilers by the mid-19th century. We’re still sorting out whether blaming problems on some industrialists is reasonable. They’ve been called robber barons at least since 1859.

My own view is that laissez faire capitalism looks good on paper. So does full-bore socialism. The latter might work, in a society populated by intelligent bees or ants. For humans, not so much.

Knowing what I do about more-or-less well intentioned experiments with both, I’m not enthusiastic about either.

That’s something I didn’t need to change when I became a Catholic, although I learned that the Catholic version of social justice makes sense. (Tag: social justice)

Catholics like Luigi Taparelli apparently coined “social justice” — in the 1840s. Taparelli’s “Civiltà Cattolica” says that capitalist and socialist theories don’t pay enough attention to ethics. I think he’s right. (September 25, 2016)

Among the many things I like about being Catholic is that many of us are troublemakers. The good kind. (September 4, 2016)

Rules and Progress

America wasn’t the only place learning to deal with steam tech. That photo shows what happened in Oslo during the 1890s.

My country’s Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was mostly about curbing monopolies, but arguably helped the ball rolling on regulating rail tech.

We’ve tried nationalizing railroads and deregulating since then, and assorted safety rules.3

I’m no great fan of regulations for their own sake.

But I think we need some sort of authority. I’m not blind to flaws in America’s system, but think it works pretty well: for us. Folks have used other forms over the millennia.

As long as we’re satisfied with a system and it supports the common good, I don’t see a problem with any system. (Catechism, 18971917, 1957)

I don’t think we’ll have a ‘perfect’ government a thousand years from now, or ten thousand.

But I am convinced we can do better than any of today’s, or those we’ve tried. We keep trying. With varying degrees of success. And making progress. Slowly. (July 9, 2017; May 21, 2017; October 30, 2016)

Human Error

(From Xnatedawgx, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A locomotive near Anaheim’s ARTIC.)

We’ve had mechanical train protection systems since the 19th century.

Train stops had arms by the track that went up when the system detected a train going through a red signal. Raised arms connected to valves on passing trains that controlled the brakes. Train stops didn’t start getting used widely until the early 20th century.

Positive Train Control, PTC, is a fairly new technology, and not on all rail systems. That lets folks point out that not many accidents have clearly been prevented by PTC.

It also hasn’t given technicians and engineers time to spot and fix bugs in the design. In any case, fixing the bugs might have to wait until Congress allows them to make changes.

Taking the option of racing through a low-speed zone out of a human operator’s control, makes sense to me.

Most humans, I think, generally prefer not being at the front of a train about to drop onto a road or into a river.

But sometimes our priorities get scrambled. I can understand wanting to make up for lost time. We can make really bad benefit/risk judgments when under stress.

I think humans have a place as vehicle operators, but not for tasks that rely more on responding to specific situations in a pre-determined way. One of our strengths, arguably, is coming up with new solutions to situations that nobody saw coming.

I’m not overly concerned about ‘trusting’ automatic systems, although I think having the option to override the system’s decision can be reassuring.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with AI and humans. We’re good for some tasks. But when something really daft happens, a 1968 film said it rather well:

“…It can only be attributable to human error….”
(HAL 9000, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968))

A Basically Good Idea

I remember two incidents on BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. It’s been used since 1972.

Trains being operated by AI were very new at the time. And controversial.

That may explain heavy news coverage of a ‘robot controlled’ train running off the end of rails during a test run.

Rather late in the cycle I found a very brief mention at the end of one article, about what caused the overrun. The human operator had taken the train out of AI control and didn’t slow down quite in time. Nobody got hurt, happily.

Another incident happened while I was living in San Francisco.

BART trains had two ‘front ends’ with space for an operator and big windows so folks could see that a human was ‘in control.’

And maybe to let the human operator see what was going on. It’s a basically good idea. Like I said, humans seem to be pretty good at dealing with the unexpected. Usually.

Reading local news, I saw an item about an operator who had noticed kids at one of the stations playing with his train’s doors. They’d gone in and out a few times when he decided to leave the train and tell them to stop. That, I think, made sense.

But the BART AI wasn’t nearly as smart as today’s systems can be. The operator was supposed to use a switch when leaving the train. The AI couldn’t ‘see’ whether a human operator was onboard or not otherwise.

This time the operator left the train without using the switch. As soon as the AI noticed that nobody was blocking the doors, it took the train to its next stop.

The human operator tried, unsuccessfully, to catch the train. What he’d have done if he’d succeeded, I don’t know. I gather that the BART AI wasn’t equipped or programmed to check for pursuing train operators.

That train arrived at the next stop with no incident. Humans at BART control had most likely noticed what happened, and had a substitute driver ready to board the train there. I don’t know what happened at the errant operator’s next performance review.

How I see technology and dealing with change:

1 Wrecks and explosions:

2 The Amtrak Cascades derailment, mostly:

3 Rules and history:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Off the Rails

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Did you mean to use a period? “I’ll be looking at what happened, new and old technology. Also how I see change and progress.”

    ‘In effect?’ “changed the deadline for putting their ‘use PTC’ legislation —”

    Stutter? “Maybe technical issues. Maybe technical issues,”

    Missing period: “situations that nobody saw coming”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

    • Fixed, and thanks! About the “change and progress” sentence fragment, that was intentional. I’m shifting my style away from ‘correct’ to something more informal. As a recovering English teacher, I’m horrified. As a writer, I think it’s a good idea. 😉

Thanks for taking time to comment!