Amtrak CEO: How we are making Amtrak safer

Amtrak CEO: How we are making Amtrak safer
© Greg Nash

Recent high profile accidents have understandably shined a spotlight on Amtrak. Each reflect different situations and unique risks, and we should be careful not to rush to judgment or make broad assumptions about Amtrak’s safety culture.  

As the company’s new CEO, I can assure our customers that Amtrak is safe and working every day to be even safer. However, Amtrak runs a complex rail system that relies heavily on support and cooperation from our partner railroads, particularly freight carriers. Additionally, Amtrak is in critical need of additional resources to address our aging infrastructure and fleet.

Every day Amtrak runs more than 300 trains nationwide, traveling through cities, rural communities and mountain ranges. We operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week through all types of terrain and weather. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, most of the 20,000 miles of track we traverse is owned by some 30 host railroads. This complicated network involves many players, often with competing interests, and requires us to have a broad view of the rules and practices that govern safety.


While recent incidents indicate we have more work to further drive the safety of our trains across all parts of this complex system, we already have significant efforts completed or underway — from the operation of inward-facing video recorders to monitor locomotive and engineer operation to enhanced training, inspections and safety protocols. Most significantly, we have been a leader in the installation of Positive Train Control. PTC is an automated braking technology that matches train speeds with track conditions and can prevent many head-on collisions and derailments.


More than 300 people have died in preventable rail incidents since Congress first mandated in 2008 that PTC be installed on most major rail lines in the United States. The initial deadline of 2015 was later extended to 2018 or in some cases 2020. Many lives since could have been saved if the technology was installed. Some of these victims were riding on Amtrak trains, so we know firsthand the devastation of a preventable, fatal accident.

Amtrak started installing PTC in 2000, before the federal mandate. Since then, we have deployed PTC almost universally where we control the rails outright including on most of the Northeast Corridor. We have pledged to Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine ChaoSaluting FOIA on its birthday House passes bill to strengthen authority of federal watchdogs Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' MORE that we will meet the 2018 deadline for complete implementation on all the tracks we control.

However, Amtrak cannot, on our own, deliver the installation of PTC everywhere for the simple reason that the tracks must be equipped with the right hardware for this system to work and we do not own or control most of the tracks on which we operate.  

PTC has been debated and delayed long enough. It is past time for the entire industry, including our commuter and freight railroad partners, to finish PTC deployment as soon as possible. Failure to do so risks even more lives.  

We are also working to improve how we think about and manage safety. Amtrak recently hired as its new chief safety officer an internationally-recognized safety expert from the aviation industry. We are adopting best practices from the aviation and health care industries by developing a Safety Management System (SMS). This activity will result in a continual system-wide audit of our risks and safety practices.

Safety compliance has always been a priority for our front line employees; it’s a condition of employment. But an SMS drives safety at the broader organizational level, changing our safety practices from reactive to proactive, and eventually predictive.

I have seen SMS work when I was CEO of Delta Airlines. Great things can be achieved when management, employees and stakeholders work together toward a common goal. In fact, America’s commercial aviation system accomplished the remarkable feat of zero fatalities last year.

Simply put, the nation relies on Amtrak for mobility during a time when road and airport congestion add stressful delays and inconvenience to daily travelers’ lives. We are making strategic investments in the safety of our infrastructure, equipment and operation. But the future of rail in the U.S. not only depends on Amtrak advancing safety and infrastructure improvements — it also depends on stronger relationships with our partner railroads and with federal and state governments who are prepared to make investments to accelerate progress in America’s passenger rail system.  

We must all act quickly and work together to make the nation’s rail system the safest in the world just as has been accomplished in our aviation industry.

Richard Anderson is the president and CEO of Amtrak.