With news that an Amtrak passenger train has derailed in central Vermont, about 10 miles southwest of Montpelier, injuring seven people, focus will again turn to the safety of U.S. railways and the slow implementation of a safety system known as positive train control (PTC).
PTC became a national issue in May when Al Jazeera discovered a portion of track near Philadelphia that was the site of a major Amtrak derailment did not have the safety system that provides automatic safety measures that could alert train personnel to dangerous conditions and slow or stop speeding locomotives. Data showed that the derailed train, Northeast Regional No. 188, was traveling at 106 mph in a zone with a limit of 50 mph. That accident killed eight people and injured over 200 others.
But Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, Boston to Washington, D.C., is actually ahead of much of the rest of the nation’s rail systems. As documented at the time, PTC has been part of a nationwide plan to improve rail safety since 2008. Laws passed in the wake of that year’s deadly train collision in Chatsworth, California, mandated that vast parts of the United States’ rail network implement the safety system by the end of this year. Amtrak says it will meet the deadline for the tracks it controls on the busy Northeast Corridor, but a group of North American freight rail companies has pressed hard for Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration to grant a blanket extension of the December 2015 deadline.
In response, just last week, the Republican leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced the Positive Train Control and Enforcement and Implementation Act, which would universally extend the deadline for PTC three years and allow an additional two years of extensions at the discretion of the Department of Transportation. That would move the deadline to 2020 for a safety requirement first mandated 12 years earlier (for a program that was discussed in one form or another for decades before that).
At issue, according to freight haulers, is time — but few will deny that the baseline dispute with the requirement is cost. Installing the system across the country’s 41 rail systems was estimated in 2010 to cost roughly $1 billion. And in 2009, as previously reported, financial consultants briefed private rail companies on how to delay compliance with PTC regulations (recommendations that, according to The Intercept, included employing a small army of D.C. lobbyists).
Yet perennially cash-strapped Amtrak, which again faces cuts in the GOP’s proposed budget, has managed to conform to the law. It is the exceedingly more profitable freight railroads that have been lobbying for the extensions. And without those extensions, the freighters have threatened to shut down service at year’s end.
It is a threat that shouldn’t be taken lightly, since nearly 40 percent of U.S. freight moves by rail every year.
But rather than assent to industry blackmail, experts on rail safety and, specifically, PTC suggest that Congress use its authority to provide a mechanism through which railroads can apply for deadline extensions case by case.
Joseph Szabo, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration for five and a half years until he stepped aside in January, lamented the slow pace of PTC upgrades as he left. At the time, he made it clear that while his agency should be allowed to provide provisional certifications (essentially extensions based on circumstances specific to each rail line) to allow for delays and regulatory backlog, a straight deadline extension wouldn’t encourage railroad compliance.
It is early in the investigation of the Vermont derailment. One report, attributed by the state’s governor, Peter Shumlin, to a passenger, mentions a rockslide on the tracks, and there is no official word yet on the train’s speed. While it might be too soon to know whether the mandated installation of the latest safety technology could have prevented this accident, the last two years have shown the delays in adopting PTC have made it too late for victims of not one, not two but three fatal commuter rail accidents in the Northeast alone.