According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were almost 11,000 train accidents and incidents last year alone, killing 805 people and injuring almost 4,000. And just days ago, a passenger train crashed in Spain, injuring dozens and sending 18 people to the hospital, including the driver.
At a giant training and research facility in Pueblo, Colorado, cutting-edge technology to prevent such crashes and save lives is under development. The 52-square-mile Transportation Technology Center, which includes tracks on which train accidents are simulated, hadn't admitted cameras for 20 years before granting exclusive access to TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen and the Rossen Reports team.
The potentially life-saving technology under development at the facility includes:
Cracked wheel detection: "Broken wheels are a major cause of derailments," explained Lisa Stabler, president of Transportation Technology Center, Inc. Now high-tech sensors can take ultrasound pictures of the wheels in a millisecond, capturing microscopic cracks that can cause a catastrophe.
Positive train control: Experts say that technology that stops trains automatically when they are out of control could have prevented accidents like the December 2013 derailment north of New York City that killed four people. In a demonstration of positive train control, Rossen rode a train that braked automatically as it approached a red light.
Sensor-dropping drones: Firefighters used to have to personally deploy chemical sensors to determine which homes to evacuate after accidents involving trains carrying hazardous materials. Now sensors can be dropped from drones, keeping firefighters out of harm's way and speeding the flow of information.
Experts say that when cracked wheel detection is rolled out soon, it will be a game-changer. Positive train control and sensor-dropping drones are already starting to be used.