May 14 11:00 AM

‘Safety last’: Lack of urgency over positive train control costs lives

"Most wanted": NTSB member Robert Sumwalt advocates for positive train control the day after an Amtrak derailment killed eight in North Philadelphia.

After a 2008 collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, left 25 dead, Congress moved quickly to include a safety system known as positive train control (PTC) in legislation mandating transportation upgrades. Signed into law in October of that year, the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 required PTC technology on all of the nation’s rails by Dec. 15, 2015.

But the remarkable (and bipartisan) momentum seen in the wake of the Chatsworth accident proved difficult to sustain. Almost seven years after passage of the safety law, and five years since the federal transportation rules were finalized, PTC is not in place and implementation is behind schedule across large parts of the United States rail network.

Amtrak — which was created by the federal government in 1970 as a for-profit entity, but, like all major passenger railways worldwide, requires supplemental government funding — has traditionally been the target of budget hawks and anti-government crusaders. The railroad regularly faces calls for cost cutting and self-sufficiency.

And fatal passenger train accidents in 2013, 2104 and this week have so far failed to significantly alter that dynamic.

Less than a day after an Amtrak passenger train derailed in North Philadelphia, killing eight, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would cut Amtrak’s budget for capital improvements.

As reported yesterday by Al Jazeera — and later confirmed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — Tuesday night’s accident happened on a stretch of track that still had not been outfitted with a working PTC system.

“We have called for positive train control for many, many years,” said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt. “It's on our most wanted list. Congress has mandated that it be installed by the end of this year.”

“Based on what we know right now,” he said, “we feel that, had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.”

Data obtained by Al Jazeera showed the Amtrak train was traveling at 106 mph just feet before entering a curve where the maximum safe speed is 50 mph. The locomotive’s data recorder, recovered Wednesday, showed a speed of 102 mph at the moment the train derailed. A working PTC system would have identified the dangerously high speed and alerted the train’s engineer. If the engineer still failed to sufficiently reduce speed, PTC would have automatically slowed the train well in advance of the curve. (The engineer of the derailed train suffered a concussion and has no recollection of the accident, according to his attorney.)

But Tuesday’s accident was not the first reminder of the potential benefits of PTC.

On Dec. 1, 2013, a Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx after a sleep-deprived engineer failed to slow down in advance of a curve. The train was traveling 82 mph, nearly three times the allowable speed for that turn. The accident left four dead and another 60 people injured. NTSB investigators determined that, had PTC been operational on that stretch of track, the derailment would not have occurred.

That area, as with the rest of the nation’s rail network, is required to have PTC installed by the end of this year. But just last month, Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer, N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, Conn., introduced legislation to extend the deadline for Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad until 2018.

But that is still two years earlier than alternative proposals, backed by the railway industry, which would extend the deadline for PTC for the entire country through 2020.

Metro-North had attributed the delay to a lack of access to necessary radio spectrum, which allows train and track equipment to communicate, from the Federal Communications Commission and the need to test a pilot PTC program.

But for Amtrak’s northeast corridor, the concern is also budgetary.

Freight and passenger railroads report to have spent $5.2 billion on PTC in the last five years and estimate the cost of a completed system at $10 billion.

“It’s still expensive,” said former NTSB member John Goglia while discussing PTC with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. “Amtrak has been struggling with funding for a long time.”

“Amtrak has really suffered from congressional schizophrenia over funding levels,” said Ray LaHood, a former Republican Representative from Illinois and President Obama’s secretary of transportation until 2013. LaHood, who spoke to the New York Times, pointed to federal lawmakers from states not served by passenger rail, “They think Amtrak is just the easy place to cut.”

As if to illustrate LaHood’s observation, Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, chastised his Democratic colleagues for trying to use Tuesday’s derailment as inspiration to restore Amtrak cuts. “It was beneath you,” Simpson said.

Still, by rail advocates' standards, and perhaps through a 2008 lens, now is exactly the time to consider the issue.

“We are seeing events that are absolutely preventable with positive train control, particularly on passenger operations,” said Deborah A. P. Hersman, a former chairwoman of the NTSB and current president and chief executive of the National Safety Council, in an interview with the New York Times.

“When you consider investment priorities, safety comes last,” she said.

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