Could Positive Train Control Have Prevented the Amtrak Train 188 Derailment?

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The efforts to expand of stretches of track equipped with the safety system known as “positive train control” (PTC) along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor began in earnest as early as 2009. In a March 2012, press release updating the public on the progress of the safety’s system expansion Amtrak President and CEO, Joe Boardman, was quoted as stating, “PTC is the most important rail safety advancement of our time and Amtrak is strongly committed to its expanded use to enhance safety for our passengers, employees and others with whom we share the tracks across our national network.” At the time in 2012 Amtrak touted that PTC had already been installed on the length of its Michigan train line and a total of 530 miles of PTC equipped tracks on the Northeast Corridor line. At the time of the press release, Amtrak expected to have the entirety of tracks on the Northeast Corridor and Pennsylvania’s Keystone line equipped with PTC.

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However, as we now all know due to the Amtrak Train 188 derailment, these projections were not met and the rollout of PTC has lagged behind projections. Furthermore, this is despite a federal law — the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 — that mandates installation of PTC on most mainline rail routes by the end of 2015. Further adding to the questions, Amtrak was a leader in developing PTC and the first railroad to receive approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to implement its system.

This leaves several questions. First, how does PTC improve railroad safety? Second, is it at least possible that it could have prevented t how did a self-proclaimed early leader fall behind schedule in its PTC build-out? And finally, how did a self-proclaimed leader in PTC development fall so far behind its projections?

What is PTC and How Can it Prevent Train Accidents?

PTC is a bundle of hardware and communications protocol upgrades that can significantly improve railway safety. PTC can track a train’s precise location and provide a bevy of real-time data about the train including its speed. PTC can prevent train collisions by providing exact location data. It can prevent train derailments by enforcing civil speed limits. PTC can also prevent manual switching problems such as when a train is mistakenly switched into a work zone or another hazardous area. In short, PTC can correct many instances of human error and reduce the risk of a serious train accident or derailment.

However, PTC is a complex and technical system. Aside from PTC-equipped tracks, railroads must also equip its trains with PTC hardware. Additionally a communications network must be developed along with a transitioning dispatching systems and other back-end systems so that they support PTC. In short, a PTC build-out is a complex multi-faceted endeavor.

According to Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), “Had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.” If a PTC system was installed and operational on it is at least conceivable that the system would have corrected the excessive speed – 106 mph – the train was traveling at while in a 50 mph zone. NTSB claims that since 2004, stopped or lessened the consequences of 22 train accidents and potentially saved 57 lives, prevented more than 1,000 injuries, and prevented millions in damages.

Why Wasn’t PTC Installed in the Area Around the Frankford Junction Curve?

In its January through February 2015 newsletter, Amtrak reported that its version of PTC technology known as ACSES (Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System) was installed and fully operational from Trenton to New Brunswick in New Jersey and from northern Maryland to Wilmington, Delaware. Unfortunately, the stretch of tracks connecting these two PTC-equipped areas was not compatible with Amtrak’s version of PTC.

hospital after amtrack train wreck

On Wednesday, investigators already stated that the absence of PTC on this stretch of track would be an area of inquiry. However there are a number of reasons as to why it is possible that the PTC system has lagged behind. These reasons may include:

  • Communications systems must be compatible – Both passenger-carrying rail lines and cargo-carrying rail lines can often share the same set of tracks. For the PTC system to be effective, all companies must use compatible PTC protocols and technologies that can communicate with each other.
  • Deferred maintenance on Amtrak tracks – Those riding on Amtrak trains regularly cross brides and travel through tunnels that are more than 100 years old – and showing their age. The signal system utilized, dates back to WWII, and the electrical wires were installed in the Depression-era. Amtrak estimates it would cost $2.6 billion solely to upgrade and maintain its Northeast Corridor line. Unfortunately Congress provided only $1.4 billion of all of Amtrak in 2015. Funding is slated to drop further in 2016. This adds up to delayed projects and billions in maintenance that should have been performed, but was not.
  • Large unfunded mandate – While Congress has mandated this system to be installed on most mainlines by the end of 2015, it provided no money to accomplish this goal. Officials estimate it will take at least $13.2 billion to roll out this system on all passenger railroads covered by the law.

Some railroads have requested a delay in the PTC mandate to, at least, the end of 2018. However following the deaths of 7 Amtrak riders and more than 200 derailment injury victims, public pressure is greater than ever to roll out this system. Unfortunately Congress has yet to receive the message. On the day following the Amtrak derailment, a House committee passed a bill that would further slash Amtrak funding by about 15%.

In short, something has to give. Amtrak uses its profitable Northeast corridor line to subsidize its unprofitable, rural routes that it must run. But, in doing so, much-needed improvements to its most highly-traveled line are deferred time and time again. This places Americans simply looking to do their job, go on a trip, or travel to see family members at risk of severe injury, such as a brain injury or spinal injury, or death in a preventable railroad accident.

 

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