In the wake of a deadly Amtrak passenger train derailment in Washington shortly before Christmas 2017, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that a long-mandated automated braking system would have prevented the deadly wreck. The agency has reached the same conclusion repeatedly since the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 required all Class I railroads to install and use positive train control.
Usually shortened to PTC, the system illustrated in the accompanying graphic makes use of sensors in track beds, GPS satellites and advanced wireless telecommunications to slow trains before they enter dangerous curves or approach obstacles, broken rails or unexpected hazards like flash floods. The original deadline for interstate freight and passenger rail corporations fell on December 31, 2015.
Somewhat dubiously citing unsupportable costs for complying, the railroads convinced Congress to extend the PTC deadline until the last day of 2018. That reprieve also came with a provision that allowed railroads to request an additional two-year extension, meaning rail corporations that consistently banked record profits over the last decade could cite financial constraints as the reason for taking 12 years to install PTC.
Freight and passenger railroad engines are operated by engineers and do not include what one might consider an autopilot like modern jets do. While some trains have limited automated controls, trains do not have onboard systems to automatically slow the train if its speed exceeds the safe limit for a particular area or curve, which can occur when the engineer becomes distracted or fatigued.
External PTC was developed to address such problems, and several competing systems exist. While railroad executives do not dispute that positive train control will save lives or that the technology work, they have claimed that the other national railroads have not agreed to adopt a single system, and the federal government has not required standardization.
The Amtrak derailment in Dupont, WA, south of Tacoma, on December 18, 2017, killed three people and injured more than 100. Data recorders — the equivalent of black boxes in commercial planes — confirmed that the train was traveling at 79 mph when it encountered a sharp bend in the track that has a posted speed limit of 30 mph.
PTC would have automatically reduced the train’s speed, almost definitely keeping it on the tracks. The automatic braking system would also have saved three lives and spared dozens from injuries, some of which will prove permanently disabling.
My Virginia-based railroad accident attorney colleagues and I have always pressed railroads to place people over profits. The need to prioritize investments in safety has never been clearer than with PTC. According to Association of American Railroads estimates cited by CNN, freight railroads spent $8 billion on putting automatic braking technology and procedures in place as of March 2017. That is the total for every Class I freight railroad, or BNSF, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific. Passenger railroads spent $3.5 billion on PTC by the same date.
When considered alongside standard quarterly profits of $1-2 billion, this spending hardly seems onerous or a threat to financial solvency. The railroads have even horse traded with some of the labor unions to convince them to go along with the temporary delays, even though workers realize that PTC provides important protections, especially against runaway trains.
One good result from the latest preventable rail tragedy in Washington may be federal legislation to fully enforce the newest PTC deadline. In early January 2018, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) proposed the Positive Train Control Implementation and Financing Act (H.R. 4766) to eliminate the possibility of additional compliance extensions and make federal funds available to get PTC systems up and running.
Additionally, the current U.S. transportation secretary, Elaine Chao joined with DeFazio and U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) to send a formal request for updates on PTC implementation to all affected rail corporations. The letter, dated December 28, 2017, and quoted in Progressive Railroading, reads, in part, “It has been nearly a decade since passage of the Rail Safety Improvement Act. … We understand that PTC is complex but there is no excuse for it taking this long and for some railroads to be lagging so far behind, as indicated in the progress reports submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration.”
We suspect the railroads have few valid explanations and hope they will finally take to heart the message to make PTC a reality without waiting for another train disaster to killing people, forcing regulators and railroad management to once more admit that positive train control would have prevented the tragedy.
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