Not long after the Bad Aibling crash, involving interurban trains in Germany, comes news of another cornfield meet, this time involving interurban trains in Italy.  That the cornfield meet occurred in an olive grove is irrelevant to what follows.

There's regional politics involved, as southern Italy is treated with as much regard by politicians in Rome as the Bible Belt is by politicians in Washington.
[Author Roberto] Saviano is from Naples not Puglia — but some locals are using similar rhetoric in the aftermath of the tragedy. Take Luigi Mansi, the bishop of Andria, a city a few miles from the site of the accident.

“This land has been considered the periphery of Italy for too many years, and for too many people,” Monsignor Mansi said at the funeral service for 13 of the victims. “This has to end.”
That, too, is irrelevant to what follows.

The technology-worshippers complain about the absence of centralized traffic control or some other intervention by computers.
Transport Minister Graziano Delrio confirmed that the particular single stretch of track between the towns of Andria and Corato didn't have an automatic alert system that would engage if two trains were close by. Rather, the system relied on stationmasters phoning one another to advise of a departing train and proceed only if the receiving station confirmed the single track was free.

The phone system "leaves an entirely human management and is among the least evolved and most risky ways of regulating railway circulation," Delrio told lawmakers. He said the single rail track used in the area isn't dangerous if "advanced technology is applied."
The single main line isn't dangerous if train crews and station agents understand the proper protocols for superiority of trains and for out-of-course workings. It appears as though the Italians, like their German counterparts, are practicing some loose railroading.
Vito Piccarreta, manager of the Andria station, was quoted in Italian newspapers on Thursday as saying he had played a role in the disaster but was not the only person responsible.

“I let that train go, it was me that gave the signal,” La Stampa quoted Piccarreta as saying.

The stationmaster said that on the day of the crash: “There was confusion, the trains were delayed.”

One investigator quoted by La Repubblica newspaper said the line’s outdated technology had become more dangerous as more trains were added in recent years and there was pressure to avoid delays.
Out-of-course running and trains being delayed, by mechanical failure, by heavy passenger loadings, by sheep on the tracks, or perhaps by fallen olive leaves in autumn, are as old as railroading.  In the United States, that's codified in the Consolidated Code.  Let me quote the General Notice.

Safety is of the first importance in the discharge of duty.

Now, let us consider that the trains in question are passenger trains, which tend to run to a schedule.  The timetable issued to the public gives people an idea when the next train will run.  There is a timetable issued to working railroaders (called the employee timetable in the States and the working timetable in the U.K.) that codifies the authority of trains to occupy a section of track. "Issue a timetable. Note, in railroading, that a timetable does not REQUIRE a train to be at a station at the specified time. Rather, it means that the train will not be BEYOND that station BEFORE that time."

Now let me paraphrase Rule 70.  A train is superior to another train on single track by right, class or direction.  Right is conferred by train order; class and direction by timetable.  Right is superior to class or direction.

We have, in Italy, what appears to be an informal system for overriding the timetable, which under the Book of Rules, becomes a deliberate and formal procedure under which the crew of a train losing its rights to another train must be informed of that restriction before the other train gains those rights.  Here is the passage from Rule 215.  "Except at initial stations, a train order must not be issued for a train at the point where its movement is restricted for an opposing movement if it can be avoided."

Apparently, in Italy, if such a rule ever was in effect, it has been superseded by informal issuance of authority on the strength of a telephone call.  That works for model railroads using "mother, may I?" dispatching methods,  but the consequences of a cornfield meet aren't severe until you get into the inch-plus scales.  With real trains, the result is broken trains and dead people.
Local prosecutors have opened a culpable manslaughter investigation into the head-on collision, which happened on a single stretch of track between the towns of Andria and Corato.

One of the EMU [interurban] trains was supposed to have waited at a station to let the other train through, before heading down the track between the Corato and Andria. The go-ahead to proceed is given by the station managers by telephone.

Two station masters have been suspended amid the investigations, as reported in the Italia news media.  The system on the single-track line by which station managers communicate directly with train drivers was “one of the least sophisticated and most risky,” Graziano Delrio told parliament on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, a system like this means the controls lie with humans,” leaving a window for human error, he said.  Officials said they had recovered the event recorder, or so called “black box” from one of the trains which investigators hope will throw light on the collision.
The point of having a Crusty Division Superintendent to ensure compliance with the Book of Rules is to keep the station agents and tower operators from engaging in the kind of loose railroading that leads to investigation by prosecutors.  The Book of Rules, each page of which is written in some railroader's blood, narrows or closes the window for human error.  In particular, the practice of restricting the rights of a superior train by telephone alone ought never to have emerged.

No comments: