Fail-safe rail technology that could have prevented a fatal train crash in South Carolina is slated to be installed across the U.S. network by the end of the year. But Canada has no requirements for its railways to use a system called "positive train control," despite repeated calls by the Transportation Safety Board for rail technology that overrides human error.
An Amtrak passenger train went onto the wrong on track on Sunday and hit a parked CSX Corp. freight train, killing the conductor and engineer and injuring about 100 people. Officials said a track switch was misaligned in what was the fourth fatal Amtrak crash since December.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said the crash could have been prevented by GPS-based positive train control (PTC), designed to override human control to stop or slow a train that exceeds speed limits or does not obey a signal. "It could have avoided this accident. That's what it's designed to do," Mr. Sumwalt told reporters.
Ali Asgary, a professor at Toronto's York University whose fields include emergency management, said PTC would reduce – but not eliminate – the frequency of human error, a major cause of rail collisions. In an interview, he said the technology should be implemented in Canada's busiest rail corridors – where passenger and freight trains share the tracks – along with the U.S. roll-out.
But he said industry is reluctant because of the costs and the problems of making it in remote areas.
The Transportation Safety Board (TSB), Canada's rail safety investigator, in 2001 called for back-up systems that would ensure railway signals are followed on the country's 43,000-kilometre rail network. The federal government would have to pass a law requiring the system. The TSB highlighted the need for fail-safe technology in 2012, after two Via Rail crew members died when their passenger train entered a crossover at more than four times the speed limit, derailed and crashed into a building in Burlington, Ont.
The TSB has repeated its call several times, noting the number of incidents in which crews did not obey track-side signals increased to 38 a year in 2014 and 2015, up from an average of 30 in the previous 10 years.
"Operating rules and company [instructions to crews] require that all signals be identified and announced within the cab and that some signals be announced over the railway radio system," the TSB said in its report on the Burlington crash. "These defences, while of value, are inadequate in situations where the train crew misperceives, misinterprets or does not follow a signal indication."
The U.S. Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring railways to install positive train control by 2015. The deadline was extended by three and five years. By the end of 2018, the major U.S. freight and passenger railways must install the technology, or seek an extension until 2020, says the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
A spokeswoman for Transport Minister Marc Garneau did not respond to an interview request.
Gérald Gauthier, acting president of the Railway Association of Canada, said domestic freight and passenger railways are exploring technology that is "not necessarily" the same as PTC.
"Canada is different than the U.S.," Mr. Gauthier said by phone. "We don't have the same type of network or population density, so we want to find something that would be fit for our needs. We would gain from seeing how it is implemented in the U.S. before following the same path."