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Light Rail in Norfolk Lacks Emergency Brake System

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In a Valentine’s Day interview with Patrick Terpstra of ABC affiliate WVEC-TV, which covers Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Hampton and Newport News, Virginia (VA), Richard N. Shapiro, a railroad injury attorney with our law firm, discussed the fact that the Norfolk Tide light-rail system does not include an automatic safety stopping system.

Called positive train control, or PTC, and required for large freight and cross-country commuter trains, such a braking system can help slow and stop locomotives and rail cars as they approach potential collisions with cars, trucks or pedestrians.

The budget for the Tide includes monies for many special frills and amenities at rail stations, including a brick veneer on the outside of a parking garage, but does not include funds for installing PCT technology that will stop a train if, for example, an operator has a health emergency or is distracted by cell phone use. It is true that texting and cell phone use is barred while operating light-rail trains, but the National Transportation Safety Board has long recommended positive train control systems, which have been used in Europe for at least 50 years and are also installed on many light-rail trains around the United States, including those in Denver and Washington, DC.

To learn more about plane, bus, light-rail and boat accidents and injuries, check out these other articles:

HRT Tide trains do have what’s called a "dead man’s switch," which will stop a train if an operator does not continually hold onto a manual control unit. However, the NTSB has found that sometimes operators figure out ways to engage the dead man’s switch by leaning something against it while using a cell phone or being otherwise distracted. This one of the main reasons that a backup electronic PTC system is needed.

Another reason to install and use a PTC system for light rail is because most metro and subway trains have a single operator. The nation’s major freight railroads such as Norfolk Southern and CSX place two crew in the locomotive when they are rolling down the rails, and also authorize the conductor to throw a train into an emergency braking mode if the engineer fails to observe a signal or has a health emergency.

In a follow-up to Monday’s report, HRT President and CEO Phil Shucet said he and his safety staff were open to reconsidering the installation of positive train controls on Tide cars and tracks.

My colleague Richard Shapiro was consulted to discuss the need for positive train control because he formerly served as chair of the railroad section of the American Association for Justice and has been active in national railroad safety issues for many years. For other articles relating to positive train control and light rail or subway system accidents please check out these prior posts by our law firm:


About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.

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  1. seanleethompson@gmail.com Thompson says:
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    Positive Train Control (PTC) is a new popular branding for systems designed to make the system “fail safe”. Typically these involve Automatic Train Stop (ATS) systems which are designed to stop the train from running a red signal and ending up in a conflicting move (collision). There are also other elements to PTC but typically highway rail grade crossings do not fall under PTC protections. Not to say that there isn’t better and safer grade crossing designs and equipment out there (grade crossing predictors, quad gates, etc.).

    That being said, I find is surprising that the FTA didn’t require at least ATS as part of the funding agreement.

    Further enhancements to Train Control (SCADA) and other systems will run the project cost up substantially more. Barebones was the selling point to get the project underway, when more than likely all parties involved knew that wasn’t going to be the reality of things.

    The best place to start with safety was during the design phase. Everythign introduced now is going to be a change order and costly.