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Feds study ‘life-saving' train tech after crash

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Posted at 10:00 PM, Feb 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-02 12:46:27-05

As Federal Railroad Administration engineers investigate and study a recent train crash in Oxnard, California, they’ll be looking at what could be the first real-world collision using a new technology that some are crediting with saving lives.

“Crash energy management” is a safety design that redistributes the impact of a collision away from passengers inside the train. Though it’s been studied for years by the federal government, official regulations have been slow to come, and passenger train companies in the United States rarely use it.

The collision in Oxnard between a Metrolink commuter train and a pickup truck stuck on the tracks ended with no fatalities and a surprisingly low number of serious injuries. The result is a stark contrast to Metrolink’s last major accident in Southern California in 2008, when a train-on-train disaster in Chatsworth killed 25 people and injured more than 100 others.

The trains involved in the 2008 accident did not use crash energy management technology.

Michael Booth, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said there are several steps to go through before mandating any new safety technology. Though the federal government has studied similar engineering techniques to direct the brunt of an impact away from passengers for decades, crash energy management systems  need to be put under an even more thorough review before regulations can be issued.

“We do consult with industry as they explore the new crash energy management technology,” Booth said. “There is new CEM technology coming out all the time — it’s not all used the same, so we have to make sure it’s used safely and properly.”

Booth declined to say if this week’s accident had hastened movement within the Department of Transportation to get guidelines on the books. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“You have to view any regulation as a blanket coverage,” Booth said. “Like railroad crossings: How do you make a railroad crossing regulation that covers every crossing in the country? You have to do very minimal things, because every crossing is different.”

While changes might be slow at the FRA, the American Public Transportation Association is beginning to revise its guidelines to include standards that will lead to more train manufacturers using crash energy management in their designs. Though those standards don’t carry the weight of the law, members of the APTA pay attention to new safety guidelines the organization puts out, Martin Schroeder, APTA’s chief technology officer, said.

“That’s the competitive marketplace,” Schroeder said. “If a car builder can’t provide a vehicle that meets the performance requirements or the specifications, then they can’t provide the vehicle.”

The FRA is still investigating what effect, if any, crash energy management had on the accident Tuesday. But Schroeder said it certainly helped, and Metrolink officials are crediting it with saving lives.

“The good news out of the accident this morning was that the investment we made in crash management systems on those cars saved lives and lessened injuries,” Richard Katz, a Metrolink board member, told NBC4 Southern California on Tuesday.

Metrolink began acquiring cars with crash energy management after a different Metrolink crash in Glendale, Calif., killed 11 people. A working group in 2005 paired the FRA with industry leaders and developed standards that would eventually be put to use in Metrolink’s new cars.

Since then, the increasing availability of computer simulators has led to more train car manufacturers incorporating crash energy management into their designs, Schroeder said.

Amtrak uses cars with crash energy management systems, including trains that run on the Acela Express — a high-speed rail line that serves Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Two other rail companies in Texas also use the technology, according to the FRA.

The science behind crash energy management involves pushing the force of a collision away from passengers and into other parts of the train, “crush zones” such as the brakes or bicycle storage areas.

In addition to these crush zones, trains can use materials that act like giant shock absorbers to reduce the collision’s impact on passengers. The use of these systems can make the difference between a hard crash, and one that’s more “like a child jumping on a sofa,” said Afsaneh Rabiei, a professor at North Carolina State University who has developed an advanced material that is being tested on trains.

As technology progresses, Schroeder said new standards will focus on three outcomes for rail crashes: trains should not slide on top of each other, caved-in steel should not protrude into passenger and conductor seating and the train’s deceleration should be as slow as possible.

“It’s evolutionary, just like your car,” Schroeder said. “When crumple zones first started to appear in automobiles, they were maybe crude in their attempts. And as tools got better and computer simulation got better, the industry became more experienced with it — and cars got better at surviving big crashes.”

Reach reporter Sean McMinn at sean.mcminn@scripps.com or 202-408-1488. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter​.​