Missing train safety deadlines gambles with riders' lives

Missing train safety deadlines gambles with riders' lives
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This week’s tragic Amtrak accident in Washington State is yet another reminder that despite our best intentions, public policy decisions made years ago continue to negatively impact safety.

While we will have to wait for the NTSB to complete its investigations, facts have emerged that indicate Amtrak 501 failed to reduce its speed as it passed signals and instead barreled down the track at 80 miles an hour as it entered a curve rated for 30 miles per hour, leaving many to ask: how could this happen?

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Overall deaths and injury rates are improving nearly every year – specifically, the rail industry deserves credit for addressing rail grade crossing incidents, which has been a primary focus of industry safety efforts for more than a decade. However, rail operators and federal regulators have collectively fallen short when it comes to addressing risks and incidents attributed to human factors and properly maintaining or updating dilapidated rail infrastructure.

The nonpartisan think tank I help lead, the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii), authored a 2015 rail safety paper titled, “Back on Track: Bringing Rail Safety into the 21st Century,” which inventoried and analyzed safety reports and statistics to identify common attributes and correlations among all rail incidents, whether carrying passengers or freight, and offered potential solutions to address these challenges. Using U.S. Department of Transportation data, Aii found that nearly 70 percent of all rail incidents were attributable to just two primary causes: human error and track deficiencies, which represent 30 and 40 percent of accidents respectively.

Addressing these two issues alone could easily cut future incident rates in half.

Many of the most devastating and widely reported on incidents in recent memory fall in to the human error category. In 2015, an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia killing eight and injuring more than 200. In 2016, a commuter train crashed in Hoboken killing one and injuring 114.

Most recently, another Amtrak train derailed earlier this week in DuPont, Washington where we already know that this most recent derailment led to multiple casualties and disrupted rail and highway transportation corridors. These incidents have at least three items in common: innocent bystanders and/or passengers died, excessive speeds were the primary cause of the incidents, and all were preventable.

From a regulatory perspective, safety regulators and policymakers determined nearly three decades ago that a second set of eyes was indeed necessary to watch the tracks. Eyes that never get tired and are not subject to human error; these eyes are called Positive Train Control, commonly referred to as PTC. This system is designed to remind train crews of changes to track configuration, spacing, speed, and other factors, and if necessary, can safely bring a train to a complete stop.

When President George W. Bush signed a PTC mandate into law in 2008 with the support of the rail industry, stakeholders assumed the industry would meet the December 31, 2015 deadline. That was not to be, and Congress was forced to extend the mandate to the end of 2018. It is worth noting that the incidents in Hoboken and Dupont occurred after the original deadline, making it probable they would have been avoided had the original deadline been achieved and enforced.

As of today, PTC is still unlikely to be completed by the new deadline, despite decades of testing and deadlines. It is complex and expensive, yet its complexities certainly do not outmatch American ingenuity and innovation. And while deadlines may be elusive, there is a very easy solution. Until PTC is completely operational, an additional set of human eyes should be placed into every locomotive cab riding on U.S. rail.

Finally, the Federal Railroad Administration lacks a permanent administrator, yet a highly qualified candidate has been nominated and awaits confirmation by the Senate. DOT’s pending nominees are critical to ensuring agencies are functioning properly, and delays in considering them negatively impact safety. It is also clear that until PTC is fully operational, the country has to stop gambling with chance and a second set of human eyes needs to be added to backup the locomotive crew of one.

Brigham A. McCown is the Founder and Chairman of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to addressing our nation’s infrastructure challenges. He held senior posts in three presidential administrations, served on two presidential transition teams, and is a leading expert on infrastructure issues. Follow McCown on Twitter: @BAMcCown.