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US rail safety under microscope after deadly crash

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This week's train crash at a major transport hub to Manhattan - the fifth deadly US rail accident in under three years - spotlighted safety concerns and chronic underinvestment in America.

[NEW YORK] This week's train crash at a major transport hub to Manhattan - the fifth deadly US rail accident in under three years - spotlighted safety concerns and chronic underinvestment in America.

One woman was killed and more than 100 people injured when a commuter train traveling "at a high rate of speed" plowed into the station at Hoboken, New Jersey during the morning rush hour on Thursday.

Experts said it was miraculous that more people were not killed given that the train was carrying 250 passengers and the first carriage flew into the air before slamming into the interior wall of the terminal, collapsing portions of the roof.

Although the cause is still unknown, experts have been quick to highlight recurring safety problems and sluggish investment in upgrading railroads in a country where most people travel by car or plane.

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Thursday's destruction marked the fourth deadly rail crash in less than three years on the East Coast alone.

New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie, a prominent ally in Donald Trump's race to become president, in July temporarily shut down US$2.7 billion worth of New Jersey Transit projects in a political dispute with state Democrats.

His transportation official denied any culpability in Thursday's crash, saying that no safety or maintenance expense had been affected.

But New Jersey Transit, which ferries hundreds of thousands of commuters to and from work each week, has suffered from poor investment for years.

A federal law passed in 2008 required rail companies to adopt Positive Train Control, a technology designed to help prevent accidents, by the end of 2015.

The date was then pushed back to 2018, but with the technology expensive and state budgets tight, many parts of the country are still lagging behind.

The system slows a train automatically if the conductor does not abide by signals or the mandated speed limit.

But it has yet to be installed on any New Jersey trains or track segments, and no staff have been trained how to use it, according to an NJ Transit report filed two weeks ago with the department of transportation, the Daily News reported.

The vice president of the National Transportation Safety Board, while refusing to speculate on the causes of Thursday's crash, confirmed that investigators would examine what role the system could have played in this case.

Speeding was the cause of both an Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia in 2015 that killed eight people and wounded 200 others and the Metro-North crash in New York in Dec 2013 which killed four people and wounded 67.

Robert Halstead, a railroad accident reconstruction specialist based in Syracuse, New York, told AFP that around half the country has so far adopted the Positive Train Control technology, with California the most advanced.

"The problem is the cost: It costs between US$75,000 and US$100,0000 to equip one single locomotive. Then there is the cost of equipping the line," he said.

"Nationwide the cost to equip everything with PTC is US$10-US$15 billion - and that is money taken out of the maintenance budget," he said.

But if funding is one problem, another constraint is the plethora of railroad companies, which use different types of locomotives and different communication protocols, which need to be standardised.

Trains in the United States generally move more slowly than in Europe. One reason is that the cars are heavier, because the standard for crash worthiness is actually higher in America, Mr Halstead said.

But unlike in Europe, few US lines are dedicated passenger routes. Instead they are most often shared with freight - meaning that the lines wear out more quickly and require more maintenance.

Despite a small increase since 2009, the International Transport Forum of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that the United States lagged far behind Europe and Japan in terms of rail investment.

The US invested less than 0.1 per cent of its GDP in rail systems in 2013 - a quarter of what was spent by Britain and one sixth of the investments by France and Australia, The New York Times reported.