Nova (1974–…): Season 44, Episode 13 - Why Trains Crash - full transcript

A look at several recent train crashes, their causes and a technological solution which should make such events occur much less often.

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Travel by train
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.

People are bleeding
and hurt here.

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.

The maximum speed that I'm
allowed to operate right now

is 80 miles per hour.

But after years of waiting,

it's still not fully
operational,

leaving passengers at risk.

If you don't take action,
people are going to die.

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 #111 reaches
Chatsworth Station,

about 30 miles west of L.A.

Some passengers disembark,
while about 200 remain on board

as #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 that's here.

And have a clear protocol

for handling these potentially
dangerous situations.

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.

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.

We had a collision
with something.

We have a whole bunch
of people bleeding...

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.

Seldom does this
really happen for me

as an investigator.

Usually I'm flying clear across
the country

and this part of the accident
has already been completed.

Ted Turpin has investigated
many rail crashes for NTSB,

but nothing prepared him
for Chatsworth.

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.

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.

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.

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.

That told us the Metrolink train

was the one that had violated
the signal.

But why did Metrolink engineer
Robert Sanchez

ignore a stop signal?

That answer would come
a few days later.

As a normal course of all of
our accident investigations,

we get cell phone records.

And in this case the engineer
was engaged

in texting on his cell phone

from when he left Chatsworth
Station until the collision.

The texts... to teenage train
enthusiasts

promising rides in the cab...

were an unlawful breach of train
rules and criminally negligent.

To find out

that somebody was texting,
it's pretty disgusting.

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.

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.

There isn't an hour
in the day that goes by

that I don't think
about this accident.

The accident happened...

Jim Paulson, a former railroad
worker himself, also survived

but is still haunted
by visions of the crash.

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.

It's just...

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.

Chatsworth was the last straw

that caused Congress to enact
the Rail Safety Improvement Act

to mandate the implementation
of positive train control.

Positive Train Control, or PTC,
is an automatic failsafe system

that can prevent crashes
like Chatsworth.

First, a train's route
with speed restrictions

is preprogrammed onto a computer
located in the locomotive.

Trackside signals or GPS
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 slow
downs or red signals ahead.

Now, if an engineer exceeds
a speed limit

or goes through a red signal,

the computer will stop
the train.

Currently the PTC

is telling me that
the maximum speed

that I'm allowed
to operate right now

is 80 miles per hour.

In development for decades,

it took Chatsworth to bring the
system closer to operational.

Luis Carrasquero is operating
a PTC training simulator.

We have where the train
is currently located.

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

Currently we are being warned
right now

that there is a speed reductior

and it is giving me a warning
of 19 and 18 seconds.

If I were to ignore that,

PTC will put the train
into a penalty,

meaning it will put the train
into a stop.

PTC is a technology
that basically takes over

operations of the locomotive.

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

After Chatsworth, Congress gave
the rail industry...

passenger and freight...

seven years, until 2015,
to install PTC.

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.

As long as we don't have it,

every day it could happen again.

On May 12, 2015,
it did happen again.

Amtrak regional train #188
was headed north

from Washington, DC,
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.

# 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.

The force was so violent

that I was thrown
like a rag doll

across, head-first
into the other side of the car

and I was knocked unconscious.

Got to move that out.

When I came to, I saw
that my arms and legs were okay,

and then I started
to push myself up.

I could tell
we were upside-down.

I could hear screams and cries

and I remember just 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 just help people get out.

Patrick Murphy stayed inside

until first responders could
attend to the seriously injured,

and then he grabbed
his cell phone.

I took a quick picture and
immediately put it up on Twitter

and I think I said,
"Please pray for the wounded."

The #188 crash would not only
bring renewed urgency

to install PTC,

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.

So lap belts themselves,

if they're not over the hips
appropriately,

you can get abdominal injuries,
which are not good things.

And since moving around
unrestrained

is one of the benefits
of train travel,

safety experts look for other
ways to protect passengers.

We've done a lot

in order to make trains safer:

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 injury.

Basically the table imparts too
much force to the abdomen.

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.

What we have striven to do

is to make sure that the seat
remains attached

and also that the seat back
is high enough 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 imparted
to the occupants.

During a train collision.

# 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.

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 push-back 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've got

a hundred-mile-an-hour
train collision.

Since #188 was going
over a hundred

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.

Where he should have been
decelerating to 50

is where he was accelerating
to 106.

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?

We looked at our usual list
of suspects for that.

We started with cell phones...

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.

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.

And 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 a SEPTA engineer
and the train dispatcher.

And the Amtrak engineer,

he has a concern
for this other engineer.

He was also concerned

that the SEPTA train
was stopped on track one

while he was fast approaching
on track two.

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.

He knew he needed to be
extra vigilant.

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.

What we think happened was, his
attention was focused elsewhere,

behind him,
at the SEPTA situation,

and he lost what we call
situation awareness.

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 PTC would have
prevented a fatal accident.

Yet Congress has again extended
full implementation,

now to 2020.

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.

The good news is,

several railroads now have PTC
up and running.

Now I passed the
speed restriction.

Now it's going to start counting
down to the next restriction,

which is five mile an hour
over to Byberry Road.

Philadelphia's commuter system
is nearly complete.

Amtrak has PTC 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 PTC systems,

even if they share
the same track,

getting these systems to operate
together has been a challenge,

especially between passenger
and freight trains.

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.

And freight trains don't run on
fixed commuter-like schedules.

So they can pop up
almost any time

on a dispatcher's screen.

We're PTC-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
PTC-active on our territory

as soon as possible.

So all PTC systems

have to coordinate safely
with each other,

and this has accounted
for some of the delay.

It's expensive
and it's challenging,

but if you don't take action,
people are going to die.

Unfortunately, PTC 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.

It can sometimes take a train
up to a mile or more

to come to a complete stop.

The heavier the train is, the
longer it takes to slow it down.

Bill Keppen is a former
locomotive engineer,

who was always wary

of what the industry calls
grade crossings.

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.

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 break away 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.

One unfortunate case,

I had a trespasser,
because 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.

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 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.

I would like to see

the 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're approaching
a railroad crossing.

Because trains are hard to stop,

and some drivers
will always test fate,

it's unlikely crossing accidents
will ever go away completely.

What did I tell you?

Lookit, there's an idiot.

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 axle caused a two-train
collision and explosion

in Casselton, North Dakota.

Initially these oil train blasts
caught regulators by surprise.

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.

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 air brakes,

since the train was on a slight
downward grade.

He then manually set handbrakes
on seven of the 74 cars...

two less than the 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.

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.

A photographer,
Lebeau grabbed his camera

and captured
these harrowing images.

I saw the firemen trying
to do something.

But there were nothing to do
because the heat was too hot.

The flaming oil spread
everywhere, even underground.

And I was really surprised,

but I saw lots of fire
coming out the sewers.

And by morning, the fires
were still burning.

That stayed three days

to extinguish the fire...
three days.

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.

This is actually the location
where the derailment occurred

and we're standing
right about the middle

of where the,
most of the 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.

This freight train slowly
entering town

is doing about ten 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 air brake system.

The air system then started
to leak off.

As it leaked off,
the hand brake system on its own

wasn't enough to hold it
on the hill.

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.

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
petroleum crude oil.

Of the 6.7 million liters
that were on these cars,

six million liters were released
almost instantly.

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 MusiCafé,

a popular nightspot.

This is the new MusiCafé,
recently rebuilt.

Owner Yannick Gagne had left

about 20 minutes before he lost
friends, co-workers,

and his business.

Like many here, Yannick
is still struggling

to put the disaster behind him.

There are still 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.

Fearful of another disaster,

some people have left the town
for good.

And after a hiatus, the trains
have come rolling back.

The train is still

coming here in the town

because we need the train.

Our industry need that train.

And that's traumatized
a lots of people again.

Until the end of my days,
every time I see a train,

I always think, like you say
in English, " train."

C'est ça, c'est ça...
every time.

But as trains roll through
town again,

what are the lessons here?

Was this terrible accident
an anomaly

or could it have been prevented?

The rail industry will tell you
that Lac-Mégantic happened

because there was a confluence
of wrong turns or missed steps

or tiny mistakes.

And because they all came
together in the perfect way,

we 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.

There are clearer
regulations now,

prohibiting trains
from parking on hills;

for crews to set
more hand brakes;

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 PTC,

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 the
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.

Tokaido Shinkansen opened
about 50 years ago,

and in that time we have
continuously operated

without any accidents
or any injuries to passengers.

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.

We have been operating from the
beginning with a special system

to know the exact distance
between trains.

So far we have no rear-end
collisions

and no frontal collisions
at all.

The Shinkansen does have
safety advantages

few non-high-speed trains have:

it does not share track
with other trains,

its 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.

101 people died

and scores of survivors suffered
crippling injuries,

mainly because a single wheel
on one of the cars failed.

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.

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 Dr. 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,

Dr. Yellow helps facilitate

Shinkansen's stellar
safety record.

Oh yeah, the Shinkansen's
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.

That's a large part

of how they get
the whole system to work

is, you know, it all feeds
into each other.

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 wig.

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.

In Japan, it is said this method
of pointing with a finger

and looking to confirm
the completion of the act,

is effective
even at other work sites.

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 3-D 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.

The difference is, 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.

That's because trains
have become embedded

in Japanese culture.

Children are encouraged
to trainspot at crossings.

Major stations are designed as
vibrant, multifaceted centers

of urban life.

And train employees
act like ambassadors,

welcoming all to their trains.

Despite Shinkansen's success,

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
an 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 super-cold 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.

The Maglev system is running
by levitation, not friction.

Therefore, it is possible
to have such speed.

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.

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 $5 trillion

and take 20 years to complete.

So with Japan's population
aging and shrinking,

will this massive financial
gamble actually pay off?

I think in any country,
it is the same.

Everyone who loves something
will pay the price.

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 only about 600 million,

since most people
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 take-off.

And there are other signs
that things might be changing.

After years of economic
stagnation,

freight companies
are now doing well.

We're carrying near-record
levels of freight now.

We have the most efficient
railroad freight network

of anyplace in the world.

And it's profitable.

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.

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.

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.

Passenger trains are really
quite safe these days.

The riskiest part of the trip

is the drive to and from
the station.

And new technologies like PTC

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.

The exploration continues
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