The recent runaway train accident at Hoboken, NJ was a horrific event for all involved. Two things tend to happen after tragedies like this: the media jumps into full-coverage mode of a subject they (understandably) aren’t very familiar with and the public demands to know what could be done to prevent future tragedies. You’ll be hearing the terms “Positive Train Control,” “maximum authorized speed,” “NORAC,” and others bandied about as if they were basic attributes of a Lionel model train layout and not complex systems governing the movement of giant machines. If these topics interest you, I recommend you read the great piece on Railway Age by railway technology expert David Schanoes, “Preventing, not chasing, the ambulance.”
As a daily NJ Transit rider for three decades and a lifelong railroad enthusiast, I have a different perspective from professionals like Mr. Schanoes who are looking out for the long-term safety of our infrastructure. I want to know what I can do as an everyday rider to improve my chances in the event of an incident. I hear commuters riders asking the same thing after an accident, thus I have prepared a guide to five tactics I have learned over the years to give myself the best opportunity for a safe and happy commute. These are not the result of scientific study, just careful observation.
Rule 1: Think before riding in the cab car
The train involved in the Hoboken wreck was a standard NJ Transit commuter train, similar in design to those used around North America. These are sometimes known as “push-pull” trains because the locomotive is always on the same end of the train no matter which direction it is traveling. Thus, when moving in the direction where the locomotive is on the front, it is pulling the train. Conversely, when going the other direction, the locomotive is on the rear pushing the train. In push mode, the engineer sits in a compartment in the lead passenger car called the cab. This specially equipped car is called the “cab car.” The cab car has equipment which allows the engineer to control the locomotive, even though the locomotive itself is at the other end of the train. The engineer sits up front, just like the motorman in a trolley car or self-propelled rail car.
For riders, the push-pull train has one potential safety drawback. When traveling with the locomotive on the rear, there is no extra crash protection for passengers sitting in the cab car. When running the traditional way with the locomotive leading, should the train hit anything in its path the heavy engine up front would suffer the brunt of the impact. When a push-pull train in push mode hits something, the passengers in the cab car have no buffer between their car and the object being hit.
Although push mode operation has a good overall safety record, there are several incidents which suggest that cab cars are not the best place to ride; they simply are much more vulnerable in an impact scenario. The Hoboken wreck happened in push mode and most of the onboard injuries were to riders in the cab car.
Commuter trains don’t hit inanimate objects very often. When they do, however, common sense tells me that I don’t want to be sitting at the point of impact. As a rule, I avoid riding in the cab car when it is leading the train.
How did it come to be that so many trains operate with the locomotive on the rear? Push-pull trains have been around for many decades, but didn’t become the predominant commuter configuration until late in the 20th century. Why are push-pull trains preferred? Lower cost and ease of use.
A push-pull train can stop and reverse direction anywhere. No special tracks are required. There is no need to turn the locomotive around to face the other direction, nor is there a requirement for a second track for the locomotive to use as it runs around its train to get on the other end. This means suburban terminals can be very basic installations compared to how railroading used to be. Simple terminals are cheaper to build new, while older terminals can be downsized with the excess property sold-off or redeveloped. It also makes the locomotives cheaper to build as they only have controls at one end, since the other end is always coupled to the train.
Rule 2: Don’t sit at emergency exit windows
This one took awhile for me to understand as I prefer the exit row when flying, since I trust myself to do what’s needed if an emergency arises. I felt the same way on trains until the terrible Metro-North accident happened at Spuyten Duyvil, NY. The commuter train entered a curve at too high a rate of speed and rolled over into the adjacent woods. Many of the fatalities occurred to passengers who were jettisoned out of the emergency windows, which gave way as the cars rolled over. This was also a factor in fatalities of the Amtrak wreck in North Philadelphia in 2015 when emergency windows gave way as the cars slid along the ground.
Rule 3: Don’t stand up while the train is moving, unless you have something to hold on to
Many commuters are anxious to get home as soon as possible, myself included. Often, you will we see us stand up in anticipation of our upcoming station stop. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you have something to hold in case the train comes to a sudden stop. My rule of thumb is to only stand where I have a proper grab-iron within reach or I am next to a partition or other solid wall.
Many of the victims onboard the ill-fated Hoboken train were standing in preparation to get off. As any commuter knows, most of us are in a rush to get off the train and will do anything to get a few-second advantage over their fellow commuter. Standing up while the train is in motion increases your vulnerability to injury. Are the extra seconds worth it?
Rule 4: Never stand on the stairs
The growing popularity of multi-level train cars means many commuters have to walk up or down short flights of stairs to reach their seats. This can be tricky when the train is in motion, but usually enough safety railings are present to alleviate any concern. However, when the train is so crowded it is standing-room-only, I often see my fellow commuters choosing to stand on on the stairs during their journey. This is incredibly unsafe, both for you and the people below you that will you fall on if the train makes an unexpected sudden movement.
Rule 5: Do what it takes to enjoy the trip. Start by smiling at the train crew.
Commuting can be a nightmare, but I always try to find ways to make it acceptable. When things do turn sour (delays, bad weather, unruly passengers, loud talkers) my first thought is to make sure I don’t take out my frustration on the train crew. In fact, I try to do the opposite and be as pleasant as possible to the crews every day. Not all of my commuter brothers and sisters do the same, that’s obvious. Train crews work long hours and deal with all kinds of people from drunks and thieves to self-entitled travelers who put their feet on seats and disrespect other passengers. Not only is the crew there to take your ticket, they are in charge of your safety. It’s a job with deep responsibility and considerable risk. I try to keep that in mind. I figure a smile is the least I can do. Especially when I am sitting away from emergency windows in non-cab cars.
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The author is a lifelong train enthusiast who has spent the better part of three decades commuting on NJ Transit trains. He was Vice President of the now-defunct Jersey Shore Commuters Club, the last private commuter railcar operating in the eastern United States.
Originally appeared on Medium: