Commuter Rail Safety System Being Tested

WASHINGTON – The federal government is testing new safety devices for commuter trains that are designed to better protect passengers during crashes, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta announced.

Mineta unveiled the new safety measures and released footage of a crash test of a train equipped with them during a March 23 news conference in Glendale, Calif., site of a deadly commuter train crash in January 2005. The test, conducted earlier in the day at the Department’s rail testing facility in Pueblo, Colo., was designed to determine if the safety devices that are part of the Crash-Energy Management system will make the more than 414 million annual commuter train riders safer.

“You can’t just punch numbers into a computer, run a few programs and promise people that they will be safer,” Mineta said. “By smashing a few trains in the desert, we hope to find new ways to keep millions of commuters safe every day.”

Today’s crash test of a locomotive and passenger train equipped with special test dummies was the first ever to use the newly designed Crash-Energy Management system, Mineta said. The system includes crush zones that absorb the force of a crash to better protect the parts of trains where passengers sit and operators’ spaces. The crush zones have stronger end frames that act as bumpers to distribute crash forces throughout an entire train so passengers feel less of the impact.

Other devices tested include newly designed couplers, which join two cars together and are built to retract and absorb energy to keep trains upright on the tracks during a crash. New passenger seats and chairs designed with special padding and crushable edges also were tested today.

Mineta said that if the new safety system works as designed, they will more than double the speed at which all passengers can survive a train crash, from just 15 miles per hour to at least 36 miles per hour.

“The new system turns once-rigid train cars into giant shock absorbers that help protect a train’s crew and passengers,” the Secretary added.

Mineta said his Department also developing new standards for train cars equipped with the Crash-Energy Management system in order to make it easier for other rail operators to acquire equipment using the new technology. He added that Los Angeles’ MetroLink commuter train system has already ordered new passenger rail cars that incorporate the technology.

About the test

The crash test was the first to incorporate the newly-developed Crash-Energy Management (CEM) system and other passenger safety technologies:

  • Crush Zones protect the passenger and operator space and distribute the force of impact to unoccupied areas of the train.
  • Pushback couplers and anti-climbers absorb the force of impact, hold the train cars together, and keep trains upright and in line.
  • Strengthened end frames, advanced bumpers and other structural improvements help absorb energy and lessen the impact on passengers.
  • Improved seats are strategically padded and designed to contain and cushion passengers during a crash.
  • Newly strengthened worktables with crushable edges reduce the risk of abdominal injury.

The test crashed head-on a five car, cab forward, passenger train into an equally weighted standing locomotive with two freight cars, at a speed of 32 miles per hour.

The locomotives were provided by Amtrak. The passenger cars were manufactured in the 1960’s and used in commuter service for many years by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and Long Island Railroad (LIRR).

The new CEM equipment is expected to protect operator and passenger space by reducing the crumpling of the first car to approximately 3 feet and distributing the remaining crush to unoccupied areas of the train. A similar test conducted in 2002 using conventional equipment without the CEM safety devices resulted in 22 feet of crush to the first car, destroying the first ten rows of passenger seats.

10 crash-test dummies and 425 sensors were placed throughout the passenger cars to measure the effects of a crash on human beings:

  • Dummies will be used to test the newly designed worktables and improved passenger seats for effectiveness.
  • The dummies are equipped with advanced computers that will record the amount of force exerted on the abdominal, head and neck areas during a crash.

More than two dozen interior and exterior cameras were placed at strategic points to capture virtually every angle of the crash, including the point of impact, the effect on the dummies, and the potential for the new technologies to improve passenger safety.

The Department of Transportation will carefully analyze the data collected and use it in future efforts to make trains safer for both train passengers and crews.