Hoboken Crash Shows Need For GPS – Not PTC – Speed Limiter
Simple GPS-Only System, Already on Cars, Costs Only Pennies, Can Be Operational Earlier
Today’s train crash in Hoboken shows once again the need for a system to automatically limit trains to established safe speeds, says inventor/professor John Banzhaf.
According to early reports, the train was apparently traveling at full speed when it crashed into the station – “it never slowed down,” one witness said – rather than the designated safe speed which is about the rate at which people normally walk.
Hoboken Crash – PTC system
Rather than waiting for so-called positive train control [PTC] systems which may not be operational even by 2020, there is a much simpler and much less expensive speed control system for trains which could be in operation within a year, and at only a fraction of the cost of PTC.
It is also so simple that its basic principle is already in use in millions of automobiles and trucks now on the roads, says an MIT-educated engineer and inventor now turned public interest law professor.
One reason that PTC is so expensive, time-consuming to establish, and difficult to install is that it is designed to do far more than the simplest most vital task of keeping trains from exceeding the speed limit – e.g., dealing with switches left in the wrong position, hijackings, natural disasters, etc.
It is therefore a very complex system which requires not just GPS units in each locomotive, but also many thousands of devices along sections of about 140,000 miles of track which transmit cab codes to antennas on railroad cars.
Unfortunately, for PTC to work properly, there must be close cooperation and coordination between the many different entities which own the different tracks to which the devices are attached, and the owners of over 500 different railroad companies which may run on these many different tracks.
All of the devices must also be able to communicate seamlessly with each other, and much of the delay in installing the system has been caused by the need to unify dozens of different systems, obtain permission to use the radio frequencies necessary for the devices to accurately exchange information, and related coordination problems, says Banzhaf.
Yet there are simple navigational devices available today for less than $200 for automobiles and trucks which would keep trains from going too fast. Their operation does not depend on any additional devices installed along tracks or highways, nor upon the type of radio communications PTC requires.
Since car GPS units can show not only the speed at which the car is moving, but also the speed limit on that section of the road, they could also be mounted on each locomotive and prevent the posted speed from being exceeded – completely independent of the tracks on which they are traveling, and without the need for any other sensing devices, cooperation with other companies, communication between devices, etc.
Hoboken Crash – why not GPS?
From an engineering point of view, says Banzhaf, there is no reason why these car-type GPS control systems could not be mounted on trains now, long before PTC could become operational.
After 2020, when the entire PTC system will hopefully be fully installed nationwide, the GPS systems installed earlier on the locomotives could simply be replaced, or both systems could be used in tandem in a “fail safe” mode so that the train can never go faster that either system will permit.
Waiting for PTC makes little sense and will cost many lives, says Banzhaf, noting that his automobile already has an inexpensive GPS navigation device which shows him when he is exceeding the speed limit established for any road upon which he is traveling. Such units could easily be modified to not only signal when a railroad speed limit is exceeded, but to also keep the locomotive from going any faster.
Doing nothing to prevent high speed accidents until a comprehensive but complicated and expensive system can be established, and not using an existing system which can be installed at little cost and probably within only one year, is an irrational outrage likely to cost dozens of lives and billions of dollars.
Not using an existing simple GPS-based automobile-type system on trains now because a much more complicated and expensive one might be operational in another four years makes as much sense as not installing a simple $100 backup warning system on your automobile now because, by 2020, a more complex system which will also automatically park your car for you might be available.
If you wanted to protect your home from burglars, would it not make sense to spend $50 on a deadbolt lock for your front door now, even if you can’t afford or can’t wait for a $5000 burglar alarm system which will employ dozens of sensors to give you even more protection many years down the road?
Hoboken Crash- Congress
Many in Congress are apparently reluctant to spend billions more in taxpayer dollars for a system which is incredibly complicated – and therefore prone to errors and even more delays – but they have been led to believe that PTC is the only way to prevent high speed train crashes.
Since a viable, well tested, and much simpler and less expensive system already exists, and is already in use on hundreds of thousands of automobiles, those who oppose such expenditures now for a complete PTC system have a viable alternative.
The NTSB, instead of putting all of its eggs aimed at reducing high-speed train derailments and other crashes in the complex, expensive, and only-far-in-the-future basket, should instead also be urging railroads to install simple GPS devices – similar to those already in use in millions of automobiles – until the installation of a unified PTC system can become operational on all of the nation’s railroads, Banzhaf urges.