Why Trains Crash

Can new crash prevention technology help us avoid deadly train accidents? Airing February 22, 2017 at 9 pm on PBS Aired February 22, 2017 on PBS

Program Description

From derailments to head-on collisions to drivers killed at road crossings, deadly train accidents claim dozens of lives each year. But just how unsafe are the railroads? NOVA investigates recent rail tragedies and advances in train tech that could help prevent them, taking a special look at Japan’s superefficient bullet trains, which have a perfect safety record. What would it take to usher in a new golden age of safer, faster, more modern and reliable train travel?   


Why Trains Crash

PBS Airdate: February 22, 2017

NARRATOR: Travel by rail can be efficient, hands free, even relaxing, but is it safe enough? Devastating train accidents raise this question.

Trains have collided head on with deadly force, or gone so fast they've derailed on curves, leaving mangled metal and broken bodies. Crashes at road crossings kill scores of people every year, and tanker cars filled with crude oil can bring instant catastrophe, like this one in a small Canadian town.

Some of the most serious train wrecks are caused by human error, yet there's a failsafe system that can eliminate most of these.

LUIS CARRASQUERO (Metrolink): The maximum speed I should be operating is 80 miles per hour.

NARRATOR: But after years of waiting, it's still not fully operational, leaving passengers at risk.

KEITH MILLHOUSE (Former Board Chairman, Metrolink): If you don't take action, people are going to die.

NARRATOR: What can we do to make our trains safer? Will we ever develop sleek, fast, ultra-safe trains like those in Europe and Japan? And will we ever see the end of these?

Why Trains Crash, up next, on NOVA.

They may seem like blasts from the past, great metal behemoths seemingly lost in time, but trains are still one of the most prodigious movers of freight and people the world has ever seen and were once the catalysts for turning lands into nations.

In Europe and Asia, trains have remained central to the transportation needs of society, and in America, after a period of decline, trains are making a comeback. The freight industry is resurgent, and commuter rail is attracting more passengers tired of traffic jams.

Statistically, trains are far safer than automobiles, but are they safe enough?

The history of train travel is replete with spectacular, terrifying and deadly crashes. What lessons have we learned from past accidents? And can we make our modern trains safer?

Ironically, a way to increase train safety would emerge in a place where the car is king. It's a typical afternoon at Union train station in Los Angeles. On September 12, 2008, commuters are beginning to board Metrolink trains to go home, happily avoiding the notorious L.A. freeways, already becoming parking lots.

At a little after 4:00 p.m., Metrolink train number 111 reaches Chatsworth Station, about 30 miles west of L.A. Some passengers disembark, while about 200 remain onboard, as number 111 continues on to stops west. It's now about 4:15. Everything is normal.

But a few miles away, a Union Pacific freight train, out of San Francisco, is headed in the opposite direction. It's about to go through a series of one-track tunnels that will put it on the same track as the Metrolink train, headed straight for it. But dispatchers are following both trains on their screens—there's a Metrolink here—and have a clear protocol for handling these potentially dangerous situations.

SERGIO MARQUEZ (Director of Dispatching, Metrolink): If you have a single-track territory, and you have two trains opposing or going in the opposite direction, you have to have one train wait someplace where there is a siding.

NARRATOR: Here, a train on the main track has a red signal telling it another train is approaching. It will stop next to the siding on its left. The dispatchers remotely shift a section of rail, called a switch, that aligns the track for the oncoming train to go onto the siding and around the stopped train. After it passes, it will re-enter the main track down the line. Once the moving train has fully passed onto the siding, the switch is reset for the stopped train to proceed. This is how single-tracking is supposed to work, but on September 12, 2008, something went terribly wrong.

What we know now is just after the Chatsworth signal, the two trains entered the same single-track curve. Unable to see each other coming, at 4:22 p.m., they crashed, head on. The Chatsworth collision is still the worst rail disaster in recent U.S. history, with 25 deaths and over a hundred injuries.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator happened to be living near Chatsworth and rushed to the scene.

TED TURPIN (National Transportation Safety Board): Seldom does this really happen for me as an investigator. Usually I'm flying clear across the country, and this, this part of the accident has already been completed.

NARRATOR: Ted Turpin has investigated many rail crashes for N.T.S.B., but nothing prepared him for Chatsworth.

TED TURPIN: I could see the freight train, but I couldn't find the Metrolink locomotive and until I looked at it even closer, I realized that the Metrolink locomotive had been shoved inside the first car.

NARRATOR: The shoved back locomotive accounted for 23 of the 25 deaths, including the Metrolink engineer, but Turpin needed to focus on how this disaster happened and why.

TED TURPIN: I could tell that the Metrolink train had gone past the signal location, but I couldn't tell which train had violated a signal rule.

NARRATOR: He looked for the answer at the track switch and siding, a few hundred yards from the crash. He found the switch rail aligned like this, meaning the dispatchers had set it for the freight train to proceed without stopping, onto the siding, while the Metrolink train was supposed to wait for it to pass.

TED TURPIN: That told us that the Metrolink train was the one that had violated the signal.

NARRATOR: But why did Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez ignore a stop signal? That answer would come a few days later.

TED TURPIN: As a normal course of all of our accident investigations we, we get cell phone records. And in this case, the engineer was engaged in texting, from when he left the Chatsworth station until the collision.

NARRATOR: The texts, to teenage train enthusiasts promising rides in the cab, were an unlawful breach of train rules and criminally negligent.

CHERYL WHITNEY (Mother of Chatsworth Train Crash Victim): To find out that somebody was texting… It's pretty disgusting.

NARRATOR: At a memorial garden for those who died, Cheryl Whitney remembers her son Curtis. He was just 22 and taking his first train ride. Curtis survived but with severe back injuries that would finally take their toll.

CHERYL WHITNEY: Curtis was on quite a bit of pain medication. One night, he had taken some morphine, and, unfortunately, it took his life. The coroner said that his body was just too fragile from the train accident. He didn't survive.

JIM PAULSON (Chatsworth Train Crash Survivor): There isn't an hour in the day that goes by that I don't think about this accident.

NARRATOR: Jim Paulson, a former railroad worker himself, also survived but is still haunted by visions of the crash.

JIM PAULSON: All the people that were killed and all the people that were injured…these memories are just…they just keep coming, keep coming and keep coming and keep coming. It's just hard to keep collecting my thoughts.

NARRATOR: Suffering a head injury in the crash, Jim began having memory lapses that eventually forced him to retire.

But the Chatsworth tragedy did produce a positive result: it compelled Congress to act.

STEVEN DITMEYER (Transportation Technologist): Chatsworth was the last straw that caused congress to enact the Rail Safety Improvement Act, to mandate the implementation of Positive Train Control.

NARRATOR: Positive Train Control, or P.T.C., is an automatic failsafe system that can prevent crashes like Chatsworth.

First, a train's route, with speed restrictions, is pre-programmed onto a computer located in the locomotive. Trackside signals or G.P.S. satellites tell the computer where the train is on its route and display the speed limits on a dashboard screen. And dispatchers tell the computers if there are work zone slowdowns or red signals ahead.

Now, if an engineer exceeds a speed limit or goes through a red signal, the computer will stop the train.

LUIS CARRASQUERO: Currently, the P.T.C. is telling me that the maximum speed that I'm allowed to operate right now is 80 miles per hour.

NARRATOR: In development for decades, it took Chatsworth to bring the system closer to operational.

Luis Carrasquero is operating a P.T.C. training simulator.

LUIS CARRASQUERO: We have where the train is currently located.

NARRATOR: This is exactly what it would be like in the real train.

LUIS CARRASQUERO: Currently, we are being warned, right now, that there is a speed reduction to 20 miles per hour. And it is giving me a warning of 19 and 18 seconds. If I were to ignore that P.T.C., it will put the train into a penalty, meaning it will put the train into a stop.

SARAH FEINBERG (Federal Railroad Administration): P.T.C. is a technology that, basically, takes over operations of the locomotive.

STEVEN DITMEYER: No longer will a single person be able to cause an accident.

NARRATOR: After Chatsworth, Congress gave the rail industry, passenger and freight, seven years—until 2015—to install P.T.C., but they didn't. Citing technical challenges requiring more time, Congress extended the deadline three more years, thereby prolonging the possibility of other deadly crashes.

CHRISTOPHER HART (Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board): As long as we don't have it, every day it could happen again.

NARRATOR: On May 12, 2015 it did happen again. Amtrak regional train 188 was headed north, from Washington, D.C., on its way to New York. It passed downtown Philadelphia and, at 9:21 p.m., was traveling 106 miles an hour, when it entered this long curve at Frankford Junction. Unfortunately, the speed limit was only 50. Number 188 derailed so violently, it lit up the sky.

In the mangled and overturned cars, eight passengers lay dead and nearly 200 were injured. Was this the result of a mechanical failure, or did another preventable human error cause a devastating train disaster?

Within minutes of the crash, rescuers began a frantic search for trapped passengers, while inside the overturned dining car, an ex-Iraq war veteran and former Pennsylvania congressman was coming to.

PATRICK MURPHY (Former Undersecretary, United States Army): The force was so violent that I was thrown, like a ragdoll, across, headfirst, into the other side of the, of the car, and I was knocked unconscious. And when I came to, I saw that my arms and legs were okay, and, and then I started to push myself up. I was totally upside down. I could hear screams and cries, and I just remember some people trying to get out. I had to pull myself up and get myself on the one table, to rip open the window, and then just helped people get out.

NARRATOR: Patrick Murphy stayed inside until first responders could attend to the seriously injured, and then he grabbed his cellphone.

PATRICK MURPHY: I took a quick picture and immediately put it up on Twitter saying, "Amtrak crash." And I think I said, "Please pray for the wounded."

NARRATOR: The 188 crash would not only bring renewed urgency to install P.T.C., it also raised questions about passenger protection. Could we design safer cars, and should passengers wear seatbelts?

Experts see evidence both for and against seatbelts. In this crash test, unrestrained dummies would have been helped by seatbelts, but the smaller restrained passenger might have risked a neck injury, because of the placement of his shoulder belt. Lap belts, too, can help prevent or cause injuries.

DAVID TYRELL (Senior Engineer, Volpe, The National Transportation Systems Center): Lap belts themselves, if they're not over the hips appropriately, you can get abdominal injuries, which are not good things.

NARRATOR: And since moving around unrestrained is one of the benefits of train travel, safety experts look for other ways to protect passengers.

DAVID TYRELL: What we've done a lot, in order to make trains safer, is look at the accidents; look at how people get hurt and figure out what are the features needed to prevent those injuries. So, you know, one big area for this has been people seated at tables.

They hit the table, and the table causes internal abdominal injuries. Basically, the table imparts too much force to the abdomen.

NARRATOR: Some trains now have tables that can flex or break apart to reduce the possibility of internal injuries. And seat rows with people either facing backward or forward can also be better designed to absorb collisions.

DAVID TYRELL: What we have striven to do is to make sure that the seat remains attached, and also, that the seat is high enough to, to kind of act like a catcher's mitt. And we've been able to show that these seats are much more effective in limiting the loads that are, are imparted to the occupants during a train collision.

NARRATOR: Number 188 did have the safer seats, not the safer tables. Nor did it have a new generation of Crash energy management cars that strengthen the spaces people occupy, but have shock absorbing crumple zones at the ends of cars and push back couplers.

DAVID TYRELL: What happens with a conventional coupler system is that it can tend to act like a vaulting mechanism and bring the strong underframe of one car up to the weaker end frame of another car. This would wipe out the upper part, here. And we now have a pushback coupler and also have an end structure that can gracefully deform and absorb energy. But if you're much above, say, 40 miles per hour…It won't save you, if you have a 100-mile-per-hour train collision.

NARRATOR: Since #188 was going over 100 and overturned violently, additional safety features may not have helped very much.

Investigators could find no mechanical reasons for the crash, but data recorders showed #188 inexplicably speeding up before entering a big curve.

TED TURPIN: Where he should have been decelerating to 50 is where he was accelerating to 106.

NARRATOR: Only engineer Brian Bostian could shed light on this. He survived but said he couldn't remember what happened. Did he black out in the crash, or was he hiding something?

CHRISTOPHER HART: We looked at the usual list of suspects. We started with cell phones, which…was this person on a cell phone? We looked at impairment; we looked at fatigue. The usual suspects did not play a role in this. He was not impaired; he was not on a cell phone; he was not fatigued.

NARRATOR: But after several interviews with Bostian, investigators believed they finally had their answer. On the night of the crash, a Southeastern Pennsylvania commuter train was about six minutes ahead of #188, when it suddenly came to an emergency stop. Someone had thrown a rock, shattering the SEPTA train windshield, spraying glass in the engineer's face. As #188 drew closer to the stopped train, Bostian began listening intently to calls between the SEPTA engineer and the Philadelphia dispatch office.

STEVEN JENNER (National Transportation Safety Board): The SEPTA engineer said, "Yes, I have glass on my face. I'm concerned about it. Can you send someone?"

And over the next six minutes, there was a conversation between the SEPTA engineer and train dispatcher. And the Amtrak engineer has a concern for this other engineer.

NARRATOR: He was also concerned that the SEPTA train was stopped on track #1 while he was fast approaching on track #2.

STEVEN JENNER: He knew that he was going to be passing this stopped SEPTA train. What he didn't know is if there were workers on the tracks, inspecting the damage. So, he knew he needed to be extra vigilant.

NARRATOR: The SEPTA train was stopped before this big curve at Frankford Junction, where the speed limit is 50. Farther on, there's a gentler curve, then a long straightaway, where the speed limit jumps to 110.

STEVEN JENNER: What we think happened was his attention was focused elsewhere, behind him, at the SEPTA situation, and he lost what we call "situational awareness."

NARRATOR: A distracted Bostian passes the SEPTA train but thinks he's reached the gentle curve and straightaway and speeds up. But he's actually just entering the big Frankford curve.

He hit the brakes, but it was too late. Although the crash was the result of a mistake, not negligence like Chatsworth, once again P.T.C. would have prevented a fatal accident. Yet Congress has again extended full implementation, now to 2020.

SARAH FEINBERG: So, five years beyond the original deadline.

Thousands of people get on passenger trains every day. They shouldn't have to count on the fact that that engineer will not make one mistake, whether it's intentional or unintentional, or have a medical event. We have technology that can take that off the table.

NARRATOR: The good news is several railroads now have P.T.C. up and running. Philadelphia's commuter system is nearly complete; Amtrak has P.T.C. on virtually all of the Northeast Corridor; and the very first commuter train to come online was L.A.'s Metrolink.

But since trains can use different P.T.C. systems, even if they share the same track, getting these systems to operate together has been a challenge, especially between passenger and freight trains.

KEITH MILLHOUSE: The interoperability of the system, basically, means that our system works with other people's systems, because, when you have large freight railroads that can have 8,000 locomotives, anywhere in the country, you know, they have to work in all different territories.

NARRATOR: And freight trains don't run on fixed commuter-like schedules, so they can pop up almost anytime on a dispatcher's screen.

SERGIO MARQUEZ: We're P.T.C.-active on our track, today. Where we need to get to is when we have other railroads come on to us. We run freight trains, we run Amtrak. We want those trains to be P.T.C.-active on our territory, as soon as possible. 

NARRATOR: So, all P.T.C. systems have to coordinate safely with each other, and this has accounted for some of the delay.

KETH MILLHOUSE: It's expensive, and it's challenging, but if you don't take action, people are going to die.

NARRATOR: Unfortunately, P.T.C. on its own will not prevent all dangerous accidents, including these:the Federal Railroad Administration reports that, on average, every three hours in the U.S., a person or a vehicle is struck by a train, in large part because people have no idea how much momentum a moving train has.

SARAH FEINBERG: It can sometimes take a train up to a mile or more to come to a complete stop.

WILLIAM KEPPEN (Former Locomotive Engineer): The heavier a train is, the longer it takes to slow it down.

NARRATOR: Bill Keppen is a former locomotive engineer who was always wary of what the industry calls "grade crossings."

WILLIAM KEPPEN: You know, one of the, one of the things that scared the heck out of me was approaching grade crossings, particularly ones that aren't equipped with electronic warning devices.

NARRATOR: There are crossings where there are no gates or bells or flashing lights, and these are especially dangerous.

And so, too, are crossings where traffic backups can sometimes trap drivers between gates. This happened to an S.U.V. in Valhalla, New York, killing the driver and five train passengers. The Valhalla driver may not have known, as this driver does, that crossing gates can flex or breakaway in an emergency.

But crossing accidents can also be caused by individuals doing dumb things, and when these happen, few people realize how deeply they can affect engineers.

WILLIAM KEPPEN: One unfortunate case, I had a trespasser, cause they're on the tracks where they're not supposed to be, walking away from my train. And by the time I saw the individual, I was too close to stop, even by putting the train in emergency. I struck the individual probably at 20, 25 miles an hour and killed her. I mean, you take that around with you for the rest of your life. You just never forget it.

NARRATOR: The foolproof way to eliminate grade crossing accidents is to separate the grade, where trains go above or below street level. But building costly over and underpasses everywhere trains travel would be hugely expensive.

By campaigning for more gates and better signage, the Federal Railroad Administration has reduced the number of crossing accidents and is now looking at technologies that can reduce them even more.

SARAH FEINBERG: I would like to see tech companies take grade crossing location data and integrate it into their mapping applications. So that drivers and passengers that are using things like Google Maps will be alerted to the fact that they are approaching a railroad crossing.

NARRATOR: Because trains are hard to stop, and some drivers will always test fate, it's unlikely crossing accidents will ever go away completely and neither will accidents due to wear and tear.

There are about 200,000 miles of track in the U.S., and freight railroads own and use most of it. Long and heavy freight trains run day and night and put enormous pressure on moving parts and the rail below, so things break.

The freight industry is constantly testing new technologies, like trackside scanners to detect defects in wheels and brakes, and mobile laser scanners for finding minute flaws in track. These technologies have helped reduce equipment-related problems, but not entirely. And a recent development has made rail and equipment failure more dangerous than ever before.

These massive tanker trains are carrying crude oil from North Dakota to refineries across America. Their weight can stress everything from wheels to track, increasing the potential for explosive consequences. A broken rail caused this blast in Mount Carbon, West Virginia; a broken axel caused a two-train collision and explosion in Casselton, North Dakota. Initially, these oil train blasts caught regulators by surprise.

STEVEN DITMEYER: Most people who were involved with crude oil said crude oil doesn't explode. What they didn't realize was that the crude oil coming out of North Dakota contained a lot of propane and butane—highly volatile material—and that crude oil did explode.

NARRATOR: Most of these explosions have occurred in remote areas, so there have been few injuries or deaths. But oil trains do go through cities and towns, and it may just be a matter of time for a disaster to take place here, like the one across the border, in Canada.

This is the town of Lac-Mégantic, a lakeside community in rural Quebec, near the border with Maine. At first glance, Lac-Mégantic seems perfectly unremarkable, until you realize the center of town is completely gone.

This empty space was the main street, which once looked like this. Lac-Mégantic was a pleasant, picturesque community, until disaster rode in on these rails.

It began on July 5, 2013, when an oil train parked for the night, near a siding, seven miles from town, so its lone engineer could take his required sleep break. The train's engine was smoking badly, and this worried the engineer. But after consulting the main office, he left the engine running, to keep pressure supplied to the airbrakes, since the train was on a slight downward grade. He then manually set handbrakes on seven of the 74 cars, two less than requirements, and left for the night.

An hour and a half later, at 1:15 a.m., Lac-Mégantic became like a war zone. At first, startled residents couldn't understand why hell had broken loose in their town.

PIERRE LEBEAU (Lac-Mégantic Resident): I was in the bed, and I heard noise, but I didn't know, at this time, what, what's happening. I saw the…lots of people running in the street, trying to save people.

NARRATOR: A photographer, Lebeau grabbed his camera and captured these harrowing images.

PIERRE LEBEAU: I saw the firemen trying to do something, but there were nothing to do, because the, the heat was too hot.

NARRATOR: The flaming oil spread everywhere, even underground.

PIERRE LEBEAU: And I was really surprised, but I saw lots of fire coming out the sewers.

NARRATOR: And by morning, the fires were still burning.

PIERRE LEBEAU: It stayed three days to extinguish the fire, three days.

NARRATOR: The damage was horrific: 47 dead, dozens injured, 27 children orphaned; the town center in ruins, crude oil contamination everywhere.

Although it was obvious an oil train had caused the destruction, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada had to figure out how and why this tragedy occurred. The lead investigator was Donald Ross.

DONALD ROSS (Transportation Safety Board of Canada): This is actually the location where the derailment occurred, and we're standing right about the middle of where the most destruction was.

You can see what's left. They're still working and trying to do remediation on the site, here in the downtown. So, it was all kinds of destruction.

NARRATOR: This freight train slowly entering town is doing about 10 miles an hour and has brakes and a driver, but on the night of the disaster, the train entering Lac-Mégantic was a driverless, brakeless, speeding runaway.

After the engineer left for the night, the smoking engine began to flame, nervous passersby called the fire department, and the department shut down the engine to stop the fire spreading. But shutting the engine off powered down a compressor supplying pressure to the train's airbrake system.

DONALD ROSS: The air system then started to leak off. As it leaked off, the handbrake system, on its own, wasn't enough to hold it on the hill.

NARRATOR: The engineer had incorrectly set the handbrakes when there was still pressure in the system. So, when the pressure dropped, the train started to move. Without anything to stop it, it rolled inexorably toward town.

Amazingly, it passed crash-free through two street crossings. As it got closer to town, it picked up speed. Reaching 65 miles an hour, it derailed violently.

DONALD ROSS: So, with the train derailing there were sparks and so on from all that friction, as everything is derailing and coming apart.

More than 90 percent of those cars breached and lost their, their, their petroleum crude oil. So, of these 6.7-million liters that were on these cars, 6,000,000 liters were released almost instantly.

NARRATOR: Sparks from the derailment ignited the massive spill, and intact tanker cars exploded in the heat.

Of the 47 people who died, 27 were in the Musi-Cafe, a popular nightspot. This is the new Musi-Cafe, recently rebuilt.

Owner Yannick Gagne had left about 20 minutes before he lost friends, coworkers and his business. Like many here, Yannick is still struggling to put the disaster behind him.

YANNICK GAGNE (Owner, Musi-Cafe): There are still a lot of people who are traumatized, people who still aren't back at work. There are people who lost their families. They'll never be the same. Me, I've restarted my business. There are days that are tougher, when I feel worse, and other days when I feel better.

NARRATOR: Fearful of another disaster, some people have left the town for good, and, after a hiatus, the trains have come rolling back.

PIERRE LEBEAU: The train is still coming here in the town, because we need the train. Our industry need that train. And that traumatize a lots of people again.

YANNICK GAGNE: Until the end of my days, every time I see a train, I always think, like you say in English, "Fucking train." That's it, every time.

NARRATOR: But as trains roll through town again, what are the lessons here? Was this terrible accident an anomaly, or could it have been prevented?

SARAH FEINBERG: The rail industry will tell you that Lac-Mégantic happened because there was the confluence of wrong turns or missed steps or tiny mistakes, and, because they all came together in a perfect way, you had this horrible accident. But the way I look at it, the way regulators look at it, is there were so many opportunities to have avoided Lac-Mégantic.

NARRATOR: There are clearer regulations now, prohibiting trains from parking on hills; for crews to set more handbrakes; and for never leaving dangerous cargo trains unattended for very long. And rail companies must now phase in puncture-resistant tanker cars that tests have shown will be less likely to rupture in a crash.

Making tanker cars and passenger cars safer will surely reduce fatalities, but the ultimate goal is to avoid crashes in the first place. So, besides installing P.T.C., what else can we do to make our trains safer?

Maybe the answer is to emulate a country where train travel and train safety are among society's highest priorities. In Japan, 30-million people, a quarter of the entire population, ride trains every day. Trains and stations can become so crowded they give new meaning to phrase "go with the flow."

In every major city, there are several local lines delivering passengers to different parts of town. And for longer distances there's the iconic high-speed bullet train, or Shinkansen.

The Shinkansen is one of the most successful rail lines ever built. It also happens to be the safest.

HIDEKI SAKAI (Central Japan Railway Company): Tōkaidō Shinkansen opened about 50 years ago, and in that time, we have continuously operated without any accidents or any injuries to passengers.

NARRATOR: Japan's regular trains do have accidents, but fewer serious ones than the U.S. or Europe, and fewer deaths. And no other country has the unblemished record of the Shinkansen.

Central Japan Railway operates the Shinkansen in the densely populated area between Tokyo and Osaka. Here, 400,000 passengers board 350 Shinkansens a day, that at rush hour leave every three to seven minutes. This dizzying schedule is managed by scores of specialists in Central Japan Railway's giant control room.

On one level, the Shinkansen is like most trains and runs on a collision-avoidance block system: once a train enters a block, the train behind cannot enter the same block until the train in front clears its block, and so on down the line. This sounds fairly simple, but with bullet trains hitting 175 miles per hour, and coming in quick succession all day long, there is no margin for error.

HIDEKI SAKAI: We have been operating, from the beginning, with a special system to know the exact distances between trains. So far, we have no rear-end collision nor frontal collision, at all.

NARRATOR: The Shinkansen does have safety advantages few non-high-speed trains have: it does not share track with other trains, it's long, electric locomotives are quite light and put minimal pressure on the track and, most importantly, they are separated from car traffic.

From their inception in the 1960s, it was clear high-speed trains, in Japan and elsewhere, could not go very fast, if they had to slow down for road crossings. So, in every country that has them, these trains are elevated or on tracks isolated from roads. It was also clear that at high speed, the slightest track defect, equipment flaw or human error could bring instant catastrophe, as this driving-too-fast mistake in Spain unfortunately demonstrates.

But the first and worst modern high-speed crash occurred in Eschede, Germany, in 1998, when a passenger car derailed, struck a bridge abutment and caused the trailing cars to compress hideously behind it. One-hundred-one people died, and scores of survivors suffered crippling injuries, mainly because a single wheel on one of the cars failed.

DAVID TYRELL: The lesson of Eschede is a lesson of equipment maintenance, that if you're going to be running at high speed, you have to be extremely diligent about maintenance. Small things can cause very large problems.

NARRATOR: That lesson was not lost on the operators of the Shinkansen. At midnight, the system entirely shuts down, and 3,000 workers come out. It's time for major repairs: for splicing and stringing fresh wiring in the overhead catenary, for cutting and removing bad rail and replacing it with fresh rail. Cars, locomotives and train components are constantly cycled through regular and exacting maintenance.

The most visible symbol of Shinkansen care and safety is "Doctor Yellow," a colorful maintenance vehicle that has become a pop culture star. Capable of assessing the wires above and the track below, while traveling at full Shinkansen speed, Doctor Yellow helps facilitate Shinkansen's stellar safety record.

DAVID TYRELL: The Shinkansen is really impressive…how they maintain it, but they've got the ridership, which gives them the money that allows them to, to have, you know, this extremely diligent maintenance. And so that's, that's a large part of how they get the whole system to work is, you know, it all feeds into each other.

NARRATOR: To keep its exacting schedule and the money flowing, everything on the platforms must be orderly and run like clockwork. After incoming passengers exit, cleaners enter and finish very quickly. Outgoing passengers, who have been waiting in designated lines, enter their assigned doors. Conductors check departure time, and once the platform clears, gates close and the train leaves. All this takes place in five minutes or less, hundreds of times a day. Rarely is a train late. And this could only happen with rigorous training.

In this training simulator, the engineer has to stop the train precisely, so passenger doors line up perfectly with platform gates. If he does not, valuable seconds will be lost repositioning the train. Conductors-in-training are taught how to help drivers confirm platform alignment and how to signal the driver when things are clear and it's time to depart.

For all train operations, the finger pointing and verbalization of steps to follow underpin a "see-it-say-it-do-it" system that may look somewhat comical, but has proven to be extremely effective in avoiding errors and for keeping trains safe and on time.

SEIJI ABE (Kansai University): In Japan, it is said this method of pointing with a finger and looking to confirm completion of the act, is effective, even at other work sites.

NARRATOR: All Japanese railroads operate efficiently and appear to make safety a priority. A recent push to upgrade warning systems at grade crossings has reduced crossing accidents from 5,000 to 300 a year. And West Japan Railway is experimenting with 3D lasers that can detect people in crossings after gates close and send a signal in time for trains to stop.

Japan's major train companies are constantly updating train control systems and redesigning locomotives and passenger cars to improve comfort and safety.

SARAH FEINBERG: You know, Japan puts a really significant amount of funding towards their infrastructure. They have for many years, and they seem to be focused on doing that in the future.

NARRATOR: That's because trains have become embedded in Japanese culture. Children are encouraged to train spot at crossings; major stations are designed as vibrant, multi-faceted centers of urban life, and train employees act like ambassadors, welcoming all to their trains.

Despite Shinkansen's popularity, Japan Central Railway is already planning its successor.

This is a magnetic levitation train or maglev. It's currently in a testing phase, where it recently hit 375 miles per hour, a world record. Japan Central will eventually expand this test track to a line connecting Osaka and Tokyo, where the Maglev would do the 250-mile trip in about an hour.

People travel here for an opportunity to take a brief ride on the test train and to visit this museum, where games and demonstrations help explain how the maglev works.

Using magnetic force for lift and propulsion, these sleek vehicles eliminate friction by replacing metal wheels with superconducting magnets, kept at supercold temperatures. As the train's magnets pass electric coils lining the guideway, a magnetic field of alternating north and south poles creates attracting forces and repulsing forces that push the train forward. Another set of coils also uses alternating polarity to lift and guide the train.

YUTAKA HATANO (Central Japan Railway Company): The maglev system is running by levitation, not friction, therefore, it is possible to have such speed.

NARRATOR: There is a moment during the test ride, where passengers can feel the train rise above the track as the maglev zooms along on a cushion of air. It's almost like being part of a video game, and people love it.

PASSENGER #1: I got excited watching the speed go up and up.

PASSENGER #2: It's the same as taking off.

LITTLE GIRL: Very fast.


NARRATOR: The maglev's route will run through Japan's mountainous interior, about the only place left with space enough to build it, and will cost around five-trillion dollars and take 20 years to complete.

PASSENGER #3: When it's finished, I don't know if we'll be around or not.

NARRATOR: So, with Japan's population aging and shrinking, will this massive financial gamble actually pay off?

SEIJI ABE: I think, in any country it is the same: everyone who loves something will pay the price.

NARRATOR: Right now, China and South Korea have the only commercial maglevs, but many countries are increasing and upgrading high-speed train service.

In Europe alone, about eight-billion people ride mainline and commuter trains every year. In the U.S., that figure is about 600-million, because most Americans still commute by car.

So what lies ahead for rail service in America? Will our grandchildren ride the same basic trains we've seemingly had forever, or will they see more and better trains in the future?

After decades of advocacy, California has finally broken ground on a high-speed line, projected to run from San Francisco to San Diego. Texas is also approaching high-speed takeoff. And there are other signs that things might be changing.

After years of economic stagnation, freight companies are now doing well.

STEVEN DITMEYER: We're carrying near-record levels of freight now. We have the most efficient railroad freight network of any place in the world, and it's profitable.

NARRATOR: And passenger service is on the rise, especially among younger urbanites that want to avoid the expense and hassles of commuting by car. Increasing passenger service nationwide could bring multiple benefits for everyone.

SARAH FEINBERG: If we had more passenger service in this country, we would have more efficient travel from city center to city center. We would be improving the environment, because we would be cutting down on emissions. We would be bringing so many more cars off the road. I mean, passenger trains can move 16 lanes of traffic at one time.

NARRATOR: And while there is plenty of room for improvement, trains are safer than cars: fewer than 1,000 deaths per year, compared to 30,000 traffic fatalities.

STEVEN DITMEYER: Passenger trains are really quite safe these days. The riskiest part of the trip is the drive to and from the station.

NARRATOR: And new technologies, like P.T.C. and better grade-crossing designs, will surely make trains even safer.

But ultimately, do Americans really want more passenger rail? Are we ready to reduce our dependence on cars and willing to commit valuable urban landscape for tracks and stations? Because if we do make these commitments, trains could once again become engines of change, helping to reshape the country for a new tomorrow.

Broadcast Credits

Larry Klein
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A NOVA production by Lawrence Klein Productions, LLC for WGBH Boston.

© 2017 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.

Original funding for this program was provided by Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Montgomery Family Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Image credit: (train passing stop sign)
© Joey Hayes/Vantage/Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo


Seiji Abe
Kansai University
Luis Carrasquero
Steven Ditmeyer
Transportation Technologist
Sarah Feinberg
Fmr. Administrator, Fed. Railroad Admin.
Yannick Gagne
Christopher Hart
Chairman, Nat'l Transportation Safety Brd.
Yutaka Hatano
Central Japan Railway Company
Steven Jenner
Nat'l Transportation Safety Board
William Keppen
Former Locomotive Engineer
Pierre Lebeau
Sergio Marquez
Keith Millhouse
Former Board Chairman, Metrolink
Patrick Murphy
Fmr. Undersecretary of the U.S. Army
Donald Ross
Transportation Safety Board of Canada
Hideki Sakai
Central Japan Railway Company
Ted Turpin
Nat'l Transportation Safety Board
David Tyrell
Volpe Nat'l Transportation Systems Ctr.

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