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May 14, 2015 — The gap in the works

A few years ago, on a long-forgotten sports talk show on a long-forgotten sports network, a participant in an auto race called for the installment of steel and foam energy reduction (SAFER) barriers on both the outside and inside retaining walls of a racetrack where an accident injured a driver a week before, hitting an area of the track without such protection.

“If you leave one area without the barriers, we’re liable to hit that at any time,” said the driver in his thick Southern accent. “We’re more than likely to find that one spot where we need the barriers — and at full speed.”

I was thinking about that when listening to the explanation yesterday of the Amtrak train derailment north of Philadelphia that killed seven people and injured dozens more.

Apparently, there is an electronic brake retarding system, called “positive train control,” which is installed along many sections of train worldwide and even on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor system.

Only problem is: the system was not installed on the sharp curve leading out of Philadelphia.

Of course, many pundits are looking at this oversight as the single cause of the tragedy. I beg to differ. The responsibility, I think, has to be on the engineer. If his intention was to make up for lost time by getting the train to top speed in a low-speed zone, it was a tragic error in judgment.

It wouldn’t be the first in the history of train travel, but if racing sanctioning bodies can install a similar speed retardant system for pit road, so can Amtrak.

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