May 15 8:15 PM

Safety systems installed but not operational, says Amtrak

Amtrak's deadly derailment could have been prevented by safety technology known as positive train control, but the system was not yet operational because of problems obtaining wireless spectrum and delays due to tight budgets.
Win McNamee / Getty Images

Following days of reports on the absence of a vital safety system on the passenger train that derailed in North Philadelphia Tuesday, Amtrak officials said late Thursday that the equipment that could have prevented the accident was installed, but was not yet operational.

The technology, known as positive train control (PTC), is required to be installed on all United States freight and passenger railways by the end of this year, but Amtrak’s system on the stretch of the northeast corridor where a New York-bound commuter train jumped the tracks was delayed, in part, because the wireless spectrum needed for PTC to work was not initially available and had to be purchased from a private company.

PTC is a series of computers, transponders and radios that coordinate to track train speed and location in order to prevent derailments caused by excessive speed, along with train-on-train collisions and other potentially dangerous track incidents. The Amtrak Northeast Regional Train No. 188 was traveling at 106 miles per hour as it approached a curved section of track where the speed limit is 50 mph. Members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and independent analysts have stated that, had PTC been operational at that point, the accident, which killed eight and injured dozens more, would not have happened.

"Had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred," said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, referring to PTC at press conference on Wednesday. Rep. Robert Brady, D-Penn., echoed those words Thursday when he observed that if PTC had been functioning, “there wouldn’t have been this accident.”

Amtrak purchased the narrow part of the wireless spectrum necessary for PTC on this section of the northeast corridor in December, after a lengthy negotiation with a private organization that had owned the rights for approximately the last ten years. Amtrak finalized clearance to use the spectrum on March 5, and Joseph Boardman, the railroad’s CEO, said it would soon begin testing radios and transponders.

Boardman said at a news conference that Amtrak would meet the December 15 deadline to have PTC operational along the northeast corridor.

“We will complete this by the end of the year,” he said.

This will likely not be the case for tens of thousands of miles of rail lines across the rest of the U.S. While Amtrak has taken what a former NTSB chairman called “a leadership role” on PTC installation, many other freight and passenger lines are lobbying heavily for a five-year extension of the deadline, which was initially set in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

According to Edward Hamberger, chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, a rail industry trade group, about 8,200 miles of track now have PTC installed; that’s out of the approximately 60,000 miles that are supposed to have the technology by year’s end. Hamberger told the New York Times that national installation of positive train control would not be complete until the end of 2018, and that it would take an additional two years to test all the systems.

Politics and profits

With such warnings in mind, Congress has moved to push the PTC deadline to the end of 2020. But questions arose as to whether this change was rooted more in necessity or politics and corporate profits.

According to a report in The Intercept, financial analysts briefed private rail companies in 2009 on ways to delay compliance with the PTC requirements in the 2008 rail safety law. The recommendations included more lobbying on Capitol Hill. According to The Intercept, government records show that the Association of American Railroads employed a small army of some of Washington, D.C.’s top lobbyists.

The main sponsor of the bill to extend the PTC deadlines another five years is Sen. Roy Blunt. Blunt has received more than a quarter-million dollars in contributions from railway interests during his congressional career, making him fifth-highest recipient, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics and reported by the International Business Times.

Most of that money comes from freight carriers, which are far more profitable than passenger lines. But even some commuter railways are eager to extend the deadline for PTC. Metro-North, which has experienced two fatal accidents in the last 18 months that experts say would have been prevented by a PTC system, said it will not be able to meet the 2015 deadline. To that end, Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal, respectively from New York and Connecticut, the two states most served by Metro-North, announced in April they would introduce legislation to extend deadlines for train safety technology through 2018 for regional passenger railroads.

But even as Amtrak appears ready to meet the original 2015 target, questions remain over the slow pace of safety upgrades. Beyond tough negotiations for the wireless spectrum, Amtrak’s chronically tight budgets appear to play a role. According to the Times, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) asked Congress for additional funding to outfit Amtrak and other commuter systems with PTC twice in recent years. The first request for $825 million was not granted, and the second, part of the 2016 budget, is also considered a long shot.

But congressional Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, dismiss the idea that cuts to Amtrak’s budget figured into Tuesday’s derailment.

“Adequate funds were there, no money’s been cut from rail safety,” said an angry Boehner at a Thursday press conference. “The House passed a bill earlier this spring to reauthorize Amtrak and authorize a lot of these programs.”

This year’s House Amtrak appropriation cut the railroad’s budget by 18 percent. Attempts by Democrats on Wednesday to restore funding to last year’s levels were rejected by the GOP-controlled Appropriations Committee on party-line votes.

“Clearly, one of the hurdles that Amtrak has and the commuter rail industry has is that [PTC] is very expensive technology,” said Joseph Szabo, a former FRA administrator, as quoted in the Times. “It was never funded. The failure to invest in Amtrak’s capital program clearly has been a hindrance in more timely deployment. The way to make public rail a priority would be with public funding.” 

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