Guess we better move quick on safety, humans to be taken out of the driver’s seat…

May 15, 2015

UPDATE: (6:42 P.M. PDT, 5-15-15)

So just maybe the Amtrak engineer in this week’s train crash was distracted by a flying object — a rock thrown at the train while it travelled though a bad part of Philadelphia? Weapon(s) fire?The latest today was that new information, including communications from another train, is that a projectile of some type may have hit the train. Glass breakage on the train’s windshield seems consistent with that possibility. Other trains, including, reportedly, another one just before the one that crashed, have been hit.

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The Daily Beast is now reporting from an unverified source that the train engineer may have been exhausted because he just came off a run where existing electronic devices were not working and he had to depend upon eyeballing all signals (apparently not easy to do and fraught with danger because views are sometimes obscured) and that he had not had enough rest. The report said that engineers are forced into speeding so they can have a break at one end of the line before they go back the other direction. Interesting — is that any way to run a railroad?

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So while most of my post below talks about the need for responsible drivers, maybe the reality is the reality most modes of transportation will soon be remote-controlled (with maybe no drivers at all). So we will be dependent upon the sophistication and upkeep of the technology.

(About the rise of the robots, see story link at end of this post.)

For the past two decades I have been an over-the-road truck driver (did not get into that until well into my 40s). Coincidentally this afternoon while driving my own private vehicle (I’m on some time off) I was hearing a radio talk show where the speaker confidently predicted that soon (and I did not catch how soon he meant) virtually all cars and trucks will be driverless (hey it was radio and I did not catch what his credentials were, but I have been hearing and reading all of this so much lately that I believe it — like it or not (and mostly not).

I see a lot of issues with all that, not the least of which is so many people (not just drivers) will be thrown out of work.

But the issue at hand is what happened to that train. We don’t know for sure yet, but it seems parts of the puzzle are coming together.


In all of this talk of why the Amtrak train that derailed after going more than 100 miles per hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone in Philadelphia did not have an emergency electronic braking system it seems to me the main point is being missed:

Why was the train going in excess of 100 miles per hour going into a steep curve?

I’ve never driven a train — I mean I don’t know if somehow the throttle can get stuck and the engineer can’t immediately do anything about it.

The engineer’s lawyer says his client does not remember anything about what happened. Yeah, he might do well to stick to that story (and maybe he really does not).

But until it comes out what happened, it seems as if the engineer was negligent. So the problem is competent personnel to drive the train. Electronic safety devices certainly should be operational but unless we go to driver-less trains (and I am sure that is down the road like it is for everything else, or actually already here),  we need people who act responsibly.

There have been recent commuter train accidents in which the operators were texting or sleeping.

This distracted driver thing is a problem in all modes of surface transportation in this world of cell phones. And let’s not even talk about air — there we apparently have to worry about suicidal pilots who want to do away with themselves and take everyone with them — well pilot, I’m referring of course to the German Wings incident.

And then Republicans and Democrats or mass transit fans vs. not so mass transit fans, or Northeast Corridor lawmakers vs. non-Northeast Corridor lawmakers are bickering over Amtrak funding. In fact a congressional committee denied extra funding a day after the crash in Philadelphia.

There is the troubling story now that in the latest accident, in which at least eight people died, the train was equipped with an electronic braking system but it was not yet operational because congress failed to provide adequate funding and to mandate the necessary broadband access so Amtrak was having to negotiate with private entities.

There is still an open question as to why another safety system or systems on the train did not prevent the accident and why a safety device in the direction the train was traveling had not been installed and why Amtrak officials were not even aware of that until after the crash  — all of this kind of muddled here. I’m not into the  technical stuff but I can detect that there seems to be blame being traded back and forth with some blaming congress for lack of funding and others blaming Amtrak management for not using funding wisely. If only our government was more into doing things than playing the blame game, but that is in all life, I suppose.

I know Republicans, the ones most likely to oppose additional funding, are supposed to have good business sense, but when in comes to public safety I think it is hard to put a price on that.

But right now I just want to know why that train was going so fast.


In the near future we won’t need to worry about human error. Of course none of us will have jobs. Read the following story and weep: