A commuter train crash that killed four passengers in New York is raising questions about whether a high-tech safety system could have prevented the derailment.
The train was traveling 82 miles an hour on Dec. 1 as it went into a curve where the speed limit is 30. The safety system, called positive train control, or PTC, can automatically slow down a train that is going too fast.
But most trains don't have it.
"For more than 20 years, the [National Transportation Safety Board] has recommended the implementation of PTC technology," board member Earl Weener told reporters on Tuesday. "PTC is proven technology that can prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments and incursions into work zones. Since this is a derailment involving a high-speed train, it's possible that PTC could have prevented it."
While New York's Metro-North Railroad doesn't have the safety system in place, the Federal Railroad Administration on Friday ordered it to overhaul its signal system and temporarily put an extra worker in the driver's cab on some routes that have major speed changes, like the one involved in the Dec. 1 derailment.
Across the country, all railroads are supposed to install and implement the high-tech positive train control systems by the end of 2015. Congress mandated the change shortly after the 2008 crash of a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train that killed 25 people.
But rail industry experts say it's proving to be a very difficult task.
"This is a massive systems integration problem," says Chris Barkan, executive director of the Rail, Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois. "We're talking 60,000 miles of track that have to be fitted with complicated new hardware and software. There's something like 20,000 locomotives that will need the onboard equipment."
That includes Wi-Fi, GPS, radio and other technologies. And the railroads also need to install 20,000 new cell signaling towers along those 60,000 miles of track. Then there's what experts call the "interoperability" of the railroads' positive train control systems.
"All the railroads' PTC systems — passenger rail, freight rail, small and regional railroads — all of their PTC systems must be able to talk to each other," says Holly Arthur of the Association of American Railroads.
The cost of implementing PTC nationwide is estimated to be more than $13 billion. The commercial freight railroads can afford their share, but what about regional commuter rail agencies?
"This is an unfunded mandate," says Michael Gillis, a spokesman for Metra, Chicago's commuter train agency.
One of its trains derailed in 2005, killing two passengers — another crash the NTSB says might have been prevented by PTC. Metra's cost for implementing PTC, which is partially done, will be $235 million. But because Congress provided no new funding for the system, Gillis says, the railroads have to pay for the system with "conventional capital funding sources." For Metra, that's the money that also goes to track improvements, bridge repairs and other safety needs.
So the rail industry has been asking Congress to push back its PTC implementation deadline by three years, to 2018, and to offer funding for it.
An August report from the Government Accountability Office says only a few passenger and freight railroads will be ready by 2015. But after the deadly crash in New York, few in Congress may be willing to vote for a delay.
Goli Taraghi writes about life in Iran — about love, loss, alienation and exile. She is particularly equipped to the task, as her own exile from the country began in 1980 at the outset of the Iranian Revolution.
In 1979, she was a professor living in Tehran with her two young children, and initially supported the movement.
"Of course the turmoil started, and then the executions, and the university was closed, and I thought the best thing is to go abroad and stay just one year," says Taraghi.
Little did she know, she would continue living in her adopted city of Paris for the next 34 years.
During Taraghi's period of exile, however, she traveled back to Iran many times, often to gather inspiration for her writing — short stories that have made her one of Iran's most successful and celebrated authors.
She spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about her latest collection of short stories, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons, which debuted in the United States earlier this year.
On drawing inspiration from her home country
Usually, I go to Iran to find a story to write about. Because Iran is so absurd, so contradictory, whenever I go I find something to write about and I have a character... to enter into a new story. The Pomegranate Lady is one of them.
I met her at the airport and she was asking everybody, "Where is Sweden? Where is Sweden?" Because, she said, "My son sent me a ticket and said ... 'Come. Come.' So I'm here with the ticket, and I don't know where or how to go!"
Most of the characters, you know, are tragic and comic. For example, in the story "The Gentleman Thief" ... after the revolution, a new category of thieves appeared. They used to be, for example, an employee of a bank or in the Ministry of Justice or something, but they're out of job and they have no money. So they absolutely need some money.
And they very, very ... apologize for taking something from your house and they promise that they will bring it back. The whole thing goes on in an absurd way.
On themes of movement and exile in her work
I have one story which is not included in this collection, but I hope one day also will be included. It's called, "The Flying Mothers." A lot of Iranian mothers are the victims, the real victims, of the revolution because children — they had to leave. And they couldn't take the grandmothers or mothers with them.
This woman in this story, she has sold her house and given the money to her children so she has no house of her own. And when she comes to Paris to see her son, it's difficult for the son because the apartment is small and he's married and has two children.
So he sends her, after a while, to her daughter in London. The daughter is married to an English man so they cannot keep her long enough, so they send her to Canada, and the only house or home that really belongs to her is her seat on the airline — nobody can take it away from her.
On censorship of her work in Iran
In Iran, it's a very strange game of cat and mouse. The problem is that when I want to submit a book, I automatically do the auto-censoring. ... Sexism is impossible, religion is impossible, politics is impossible.
A second censorship is by the publisher. He takes this sentence, 'no-no-no-no-no.' Finally it goes to the Ministry of the Shah and the stupid man sitting there ... he cuts a paragraph, he cuts a sentence, he cuts a page. Mutilated story finally is published, and I'm happy.
But often what happens then is the book sells well, people are excited about it, and they say, 'What is in it? Maybe we didn't see.' And then they confiscate a book from the bookshops.
In Persian, everything is mingled with poetry. We have a poem which says that if God by his wisdom closes a door, with his grace he opens another door. Iranians are always waiting for this 'another door.' No door is definitely closed.
The online magazine Ozy covers people, places and trends on the horizon. Co-founder Carlos Watson joins All Things Considered regularly to tell us about the site's latest discoveries.
This week, Watson tells host Arun Rath about about a rising star in soccer who could turn things around for England in the World Cup, and a Bahraini woman who calls herself an "accidental activist." He also shares a clip from an Ozy interview with President Bill Clinton regarding Nelson Mandela's legacy.
Today college football saw another upset, when Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State to kill their Big 12 championship and BCS bowl game hope.
The AP has the details of the game. But something just as dramatic happened off the field: Stillwater, Okla., where the game was played, and a large section of the state stretching south past Oklahoma City were shaken by a rare 4.5 magnitude earthquake.
Of course, the typical jokes were thrown around: Weatherstorm.net tweeted the earthquake had caused some real damage:
But SB Nation pointed out something funnier. Here's what ESPN's coverage looked like during the quake:
Just in the past few days:
- In Baton Rouge, La., joggers concerned about a recent attack on a runner are carrying pepper spray.
- In Missoula, Mont., a woman files a complaint against a man for pepper-spraying her golden retriever.
- In Denver, Colo., inmates say law enforcement officials have used pepper spray excessively.
Have you noticed? The acrid aroma of pepper spray is everywhere. Maybe it's time to pause and reflect on the suddenly prevalent repellent.
Pepper spray has become so commonplace in contemporary and chaotic America, it's even being marketed as a holiday gift. "It makes a great stocking stuffer," says Carlos Crespo, according to the Military Times. Crespo owns Rose Guardian, a company that offers stylish self-protection products to women. "It's not a typical gift. It's something that shows you care and it makes a difference, not like a blouse or something that will go into a closet and never get used."
Employed wisely, it can be an effective critter and creepster deterrent. Misused, it can mess somebody up. For the uninitiated, pepper spray — a concoction including chemicals and chili pepper extract — burns the eyes and the skin. Originally, it was used mostly by agents of the law. The FBI began carrying it in the 1980s. Use by local police escalated in the 1990s, often for crowd control.
Now pepper spray is available to just about everybody. Wal-Mart offers the VEXOR, a personal spray "designed to be used for self-defense in your home, RV or camper to stop intruders instantly." Rose Guardian sells little aerosol cans disguised as blush-on brushes and iPhone cases. Sprays labeled "Military Wife" and "Licensed Practical Nurse" — among others — are available. As is the pink Help Fight Breast Cancer! version.
Can Hello Kitty pepper spray be far behind?
Mixed With Tears
The irritating lachrymatory agent is featured in Peace, Love and Pepper Spray, a new coffee-table book about protest in America. The chapter on pepper spray features depictions of sprayings of a teacher in New York, college students in California, protesters in Washington and others.
"I only hope," author Amber Lyon writes in the introduction, "that the threat of pepper spray will never prevail over the voice of the American people."
Pepper spray may never prevail over the voice, but it can really do a number on the eyes. Ask someone who has been on the receiving end.
For Susanna Martin — a copy editor for a medical publisher in Philadelphia — the memory of being pepper sprayed is everlasting.
In the spring of 1995, Martin — then a college student — joined with thousands of protesters in and around City Hall Park in New York City. "We were planning to march on Wall Street," she says, "because we were angry that finance and real estate interests were getting heavy subsidies for transforming the city to meet their own needs while Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani and Gov. [George] Pataki were making public higher education too expensive for low-income students."
The protesters "had decided not to negotiate with the police about our march route," Martin says, "because other marches had been denied permits to march on Wall Street and because we wanted to disrupt the functioning of the financial district."
The park was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of police. Order turned to disorder. Martin was pepper-sprayed in the face. "The pepper spray was wet," she says, "or at least it seemed to be wet because it was mixed with my tears."
The mist "stung my eyes something fierce," she says. "It hurt for a few hours, but I remember feeling better by about three or four hours later, when we were outside the police precinct waiting for our friends to be released."
What hurt the most, she recalls, "was being made physically helpless, which was terrifying."
The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj