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New Jersey Train Crash: Could Safety Tech Have Averted Disaster?

Hoboken Train Crash
An NJ Transit train crashed into the platform at the Hoboken Terminal Sept. 29, 2016 in Hoboken, New Jersey. (Image credit: Pancho Bernasconi/Getty Images)

Officials in New Jersey are still piecing together what caused a horrific train crash in Hoboken yesterday (Sept. 29) that killed one person and injured more than 100 others. While it's not yet known if the crash was caused by operator error or mechanical failure, there are technologies available that are designed to halt a train during an emergency.

Observers at yesterday's crash scene said the train was traveling much faster than is typical for a station approach, NPR reported. The train did not slow as it barreled into Hoboken Terminal at 8:45 a.m. ET, and its momentum carried it through the barrier at the end of the track and up into the station itself, causing part of the roof to collapse.

The train did not carry an automated braking system known as Positive Train Control (PTC), which is designed to deploy in emergencies. Many are now questioning whether equipping New Jersey commuter trains with this safety feature could have prevented the tragedy. [Top 10 Leading Causes of Death]

PTC is a wireless system that gathers and integrates information from track switches and circuits, from servers integrating all train network information, and from individual locomotives, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

The system uses this data to monitor trains and to stop them if they exceed safe speeds, if they access tracks where they're not supposed to go, or if a collision is imminent, the AAR said.

In 2008, Congress determined that PTC should be implemented in all regularly scheduled intercity and commuter railroad lines by Dec. 31, 2015, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

But the deadline was later extended to Dec. 31, 2018, with the possibility of it being pushed back for two more years under certain conditions, the FRA said on its website. The administration added that all railroads are currently required to submit a plan by Jan. 26, 2016, "outlining when and how the railroad would have a system fully installed and activated."

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH) commuter trains are in the process of installing PTC technology, CNBC reported.

However, a progress report submitted by New Jersey Transit to the FRA on Sept. 13 shows that to date, none of their locomotives are PTC-equipped and none of their employees have received training on how to operate PTC systems.

Experts blame the high cost of implementing PTC technology for stalling its installation by the railroad industry, CNN reported in 2013.

As officials examine the evidence related to the Hoboken crash, they will carefully consider whether PTC could have prevented it.

"That's what we'll be looking into," Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told ABC News. Dinh-Zarr said the NTSB has been recommending PTC installation for more than 40 years, and they will consider the role that PTC could have played alongside the other factors that emerge regarding engineer performance and other circumstances that could have contributed to the accident.

While PTC is designed to prevent certain types of accidents, it will not deploy in response to some kinds of derailments due to equipment failure or train operator error, the AAR said on its website.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger

Mindy Weisberger is a Live Science senior writer covering a general beat that includes climate change, paleontology, weird animal behavior, and space. Mindy holds an M.F.A. in Film from Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.