Monday morning a double-decker city transit bus collided with a passenger train in Ottawa. Six killed and about 30 injured in one of those horrific things that happen in the world, in this case a little too close to home. We’re going to overlook the tragedy for the time being and focus on what were the potential contributing factors as the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) sifts through several months worth of investigation. By the way, the TSB is very thorough: If there is a golden nugget, they’ll find it.
The OCTranspo bus, here, weighs in at 52,911 pounds, about 26 tons. A passenger train weighs in around 60 tons per car, with the engine weighing around 268,800 pounds, or 134 tons. Easy math, the bus will lose. So will people walking on the tracks, or a car, or a tractor trailer full of steel beams. The train is bigger, weighs more and can’t stop nearly as well as any bus, truck, snowmobile, ATV, hiker, moose, or scooter puke on a Vespa listening to Juice Newton bootlegs on his iPod with the volume up at 11.
Train versus any thing usually ends poorly for the other thing.
A major contributing factor in Ottawa is what is called a grade crossing or a level crossing. There are more than 40,000 of them in Canada, most of the white cross-buck warning, without lights, bells or barricades. The vast majority are rural, off the beaten path and the locals know enough to stop, look and listen. In urban areas, we get the full lights, bells and barricades treatment to keep us from being complete idiots. Even then, there are idiots out there that this link gives you enough examples of just how dumb humans can be.
The fix is to keep trains away from vehicles. Underpasses or overpasses cost money, but they work well at keeping the two apart. High speed rail, by definition has no, or almost no level crossings to keep a 300 kilometer per hour passenger train away from everyone else. They almost always have their own dedicated tracks to keep them away from other trains too, the engineering of complete separation ensuring more potential for safety. Not safety as an absolute, but the potential for safety. Barcelona is an example of the human overriding the potential for safety in high-speed rail accidents.
Canada flirted with high-speed rail in the mid-60’s with the CN Turbo Train. On its maiden trip, the Turbo clobbered truck at a level crossing near Kingston, ON, essentially pulling the plug on high-speed rail in Canada. The costs were prohibitive to give the Turbo Train a dedicated, safe, right of way in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. Move the calendar to 2013 and the problem is still with us. Land, bridges, overpasses, underpasses and infrastructure all cost a lot of money for very little visible return, except for that nebulous concept of safety.
Like pilots, train engineers and bus drivers, those people are always first at the accident and have a vested interest in things being as safe as we can make them.
The cheapest and fastest fix today is to legislate that any vehicle that carries more than 10 people or weighs more than 10 tons must come to a full stop at any railroad crossing, lights or not and only proceed when the way is clear. It’s a simple, cheap fix the Provincial and Federal governments can put in place in a dozen phone calls, some emails and a couple of weeks work.
Which is why it won’t be done. Stop. Look. Listen.