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Amtrak completes train safety upgrade at site of deadly May derailment

Positive train control, which may have prevented Philadelphia accident, is still absent from most of US railroads

On May 12, an Amtrak passenger train derailed after hitting a curve outside Philadelphia at more than twice the posted speed, leaving eight dead and more than 200 injured. This past weekend, more than seven months later, Amtrak quietly activated the safety system on that portion of track that could have prevented the crash.

That system, known as positive train control (PTC), was originally mandated for most of the United States’ railways — passenger and freight — in 2008, with the deadline for completion Dec. 31, 2015. That deadline, long fought by large freight carriers and several commuter rail companies, was pushed back five years (three years plus an additional two years of conditional extensions) in a deal struck after delinquent railroads threatened to slow or stop service. The extension language was included in the recently passed transportation bill.

Also included in the $305 billion Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act was roughly $199 million to help commuter railroads install PTC. That is a first for Congress, which had never before budgeted money for the mandated safety system, but it is tiny fraction of the estimated $12 billion a full, nationwide rollout of PTC is expected to cost.

There was also $25 million for train safety included in last week’s omnibus spending package, but it is reported that money could also be spent on other rail upgrades.

By way of perspective, Metra, the commuter rail service for Chicago and surrounding suburbs, last week signed a $45 million deal to outfit its system with PTC technologies. And industry analysts estimate that Union Pacific, the nation’s largest freight railroad, will have to spend approximately $4 billion to complete its PTC update.

Positive train control is a package of communications and equipment upgrades designed to monitor and control train speed and location in order to prevent train-to-train collisions and derailments caused by excess speed or misaligned switches. The concept is decades old, but was first mandated by Congress in 2008, after a collision of two trains in Chatsworth, California, killed 25.

The lack of progress toward the original year-end deadline for a fully functional PTC program became part of the national conversation after Al Jazeera revealed that the safety system wasn’t operational on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor at the site of the fatal May derailment.

Data showed the northbound passenger train was traveling at 106 mph in a zone with a speed limit of 50 mph. PTC would liklely have identified the fast-moving locomotive, signaled the engineer and automatically reduced the speed.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, PTC could have prevented 25 accidents and 65 deaths in the last 10 years.

But further investigation by Al Jazeera discovered that the May accident could likely have been prevented by an even older technology — called automatic train control (ATC) — which was also not installed at the site of the derailment, even though the safety system was operational on the same segment of track for trains going in the opposite direction. ATC uses sensors on the tracks to alert engineers when a train exceeds the speed limit, and automatically triggers brakes if the locomotive doesn’t slow down.

The decision not to install ATC on northbound tracks might have resulted from assumptions about the inability of trains to accelerate to a dangerous speed coming out of the North Philadelphia station. But the calculations were likely done with decades-old locomotives, not the 8,600 horsepower “Cities Sprinters” — known for their superior acceleration — which were rolled out along the Boston to Washington, D.C., run in 2014.

Amtrak has had an operational PTC system on tacks between Boston and New Haven, Connecticut, since 2000, when it debuted its high-speed Acela service. Small parts of the Northeast corridor won’t be covered by PTC, most notably so-called slow-speed zones near stations and some parts of the tack owned by other commuter railroads, such as Metro-North.

Four people died in December 2013 when a Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx, New York. Federal investigators determined that PTC would have prevented the accident.

Metro-North and its partner line, the Long Island Railroad, were among the U.S. commuter systems that joined the freight hauling railroads in pushing for delays in safety requirements.

A May report in The Intercept showed financial analysts briefed the rail industry in 2009 on ways to forestall any PTC mandate, recommending lobbying and financial contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 2008 — when the December 2015 deadline was enacted — the railroad industry has spent $316 million on lobbying in Washington, and has donated more than $24 million to members of Congress.

The reasoning, according to analysts, is because of what is seen as PTC’s low investment-to-profit ratio. While positive train control will increase safety, experts say it doesn’t allow for faster trains or tighter train spacing.

Still, it is the solidly profitable freight railroads that have pushed hardest against the PTC requirement, while the perennially cash-strapped passenger system Amtrak has managed to make the original deadline on its busiest section of track.

But the blanket extension now has safety advocates worried that, Amtrak not withstanding, most U.S. rails will remain without the safety upgrade for many years to come. The former head of the Federal Railroad Administration, Joseph Szabo, warned against blanket extensions upon his retirement at the start of 2015. Current FRA chief Sarah Feinberg told railroads not to expect further extensions after 2020, while also chiding the rail companies for already waiting this long.

“If PTC is not fully implemented by Jan. 1, 2016, we can and should expect there to be accidents in the months and years to follow that PTC could have prevented,” Feinberg said in June testimony before a House subcommittee [PDF].

But for passengers traveling between New York and Washington, D.C., at least, 2016 will be as safe as the rest of the country’s rails were already supposed to be.

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