We wrote in January about the Amtrak train derailment in Washington that killed three people during the inaugural trip on a new route. That accident has reignited concerns over federal rail safety mandates that have yet to be fully implemented. The pressure should be increasing on railroads to install crash-avoidance technology. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in a Jan. 4 preliminary report that the Dec. 18 derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train was due to it speeding as it approached a curve, and that federally mandated technology known as positive train control (PTC) that can automatically activate brakes on trains in over-speed situations could have prevented the accident if the technology had been fully activated on that stretch of track.
The Washington wreck, according to safety experts, has amplified the pressure on railroads and train operators to accelerate the widespread rollout of positive train control before a year-end deadline. As we reported previously, Congress mandated that passenger and freight railroads install PTC by the end of 2015 when it passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act in 2008. However, the railroads have successfully delayed installing the rail safety technology. They successfully lobbied Congress to extend that deadline to Dec. 31, 2018, in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015.
In certain situations, railroads can ask the Department of Transportation (DOT) to bump their PTC installation deadlines to 2020. But with the nation’s sprawling network of rail tracks and railroad operators, the responsibility for PTC implementation is often shared among multiple parties. The debate is ongoing at present over who all was responsible for the Washington accident.
This latest Amtrak derailment, a September 2016 NJ Transit commuter train crash in Hoboken, New Jersey, and the May 2015 derailment of Amtrak 188 in Philadelphia have brought the PTC issue back to the fore and have sparked outrage that the slow rollout of the technology has cost lives, experts say. Whenever there is a major Class I freight rail accident, the NTSB has to determine if the accident could have been prevented by PTC.
Following the Amtrak incident, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao sent letters to railroads on Dec. 27 urging them to take all possible measures to ensure they will meet the year-end deadline to install PTC. Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Michael Capuano, D-Mass., ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, have demanded that the DOT hold railroads more accountable for complying with the deadline.
The legislators have introduced a bill, Positive Train Control Implementation and Financing Act, that would speed up PTC implementation by requiring that all railroads have the technology installed by the end of the year, while also preventing railroads from getting further extensions on the deadline, and providing approximately $2.5 billion in grants for cash-strapped commuter and intercity passenger railroads to implement PTC. Rep. DeFazio said in a statement last month: “Enough. No more delays, no more extensions, no more excuses from railroads who have had 10 years to implement PTC technology.”
PTC is a multifaceted system that involves digital radio communications, a global positioning system and fixed wayside signal systems to transmit a continuous stream of data about the location, direction and speed of trains, according to regulators. Ultimately, PTC can be used to prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits, and the movement of a train through a main line switch in the wrong position.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) website tracks railroads’ progress in installing PTC. Only a few regional railroad operators have reached the 100 percent mark for equipping locomotives, completing track segments, installing radio towers, training employees, acquiring spectrum, installing back office servers, and submitting safety plans for the FRA’s review and approval.
Meanwhile, the lawsuits are being filed against Amtrak over the Washington derailment. PTC is front and center in those suits. The Plaintiffs allege that Amtrak equipped the locomotive with a control system that would have warned its operator to slow down and automatically brake if he didn’t respond, but “knowingly failed” to make it operable.
There is a $295 million statutory cap on damages that Amtrak can face from any single incident. Congress first set the damages cap at $200 million in the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, but raised that cap to $295 million in the 2015 FAST Act, making sure that it also applied retroactively to the May 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia. The FAST Act also adjusted the cap for inflation every fifth year going forward.