Positive Train Control prevents derailments — we must fund it

Positive Train Control prevents derailments — we must fund it

Details are the lifeblood of policymaking. Especially in an era of “alternative facts,” command of the details is crucial to ensuring that we make good decisions, uncolored by emotion or partisanship.

Sometimes submerging in details is a way to avoid uncomfortable facts. In the case of implementing Positive Train Control, U.S. policy is so diffuse, the details so mind-numbing and contradictory, and the funding so vaporous, that we’ve erected barriers to common-sense policy.

With the latest incident near Tacoma, Washington, since 2008 at least 40 Americans have paid for this unnecessarily complex state of affairs with their lives. Some 250 others have endured broken limbs and spilled blood, a death and injury toll that was largely preventable.


In the immediate aftermath of the December Amtrak derailment that claimed three lives — two of who were active members of this association and one, Jim Hamre, who was on our board — I talked to a lot of experts whose opinions I respect. I went on to read the work of others whose insights I use every day in my job. But I found no consistency and little agreement, and that, I believe, is where much of the real problem lies.

As a former volunteer firefighter/paramedic, I’ve worked crash scenes and mass-casualty incidents, and I’m familiar with the very human need to affix blame, to know why there is tragedy, to understand how ordinary life can become carnage in the blink of an eye.

My brother and sister firefighters were still on-scene on Interstate 5 that Monday morning when the finger-pointing began: it’s Amtrak’s fault, because it was their train; it’s the state’s fault, because trains shouldn’t have been rolling through there at all; it’s SoundTransit’s fault, it’s Washington’s Department of Transportation, it’s Sen. Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBreyer retirement throws curveball into midterms Schumer vows to vote on Biden Supreme Court pick with 'all deliberate speed' Voting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? MORE (for holding up the confirmation of Federal Railroad Administration nominee Ron Batory); it’s the engineer; it’s terrorists. 

The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigators will pick through this wreckage and decide how best to apportion responsibility in its wake. But let’s just cut to the chase: we are looking at the fourth incident since 2008 where Americans have died in a derailment that PTC could have prevented.

As a nation, we’ve decided that the $12 billion project to implement PTC — what the FRA has described as the “most important” change in railroad safety technology in a century — just isn’t important enough.

So far we’ve allocated only $1.2 billion to PTC, mostly to help smaller operators like SoundTransit pay for the implementation. And we’ve set legislative deadlines, only to blow through them because operators can’t meet the mandate due to real challenges in technology, funding and jurisdictional responsibilities. We’ve developed no single, uniform standard to help make implementation more efficient. We’ve found the single most complicated and confusing way to make this “most important” change, and, unsurprisingly, implementation is uneven as a result. 

We spend $1 billion each and every year in research, development and testing to implement the new, and badly needed, NextGen air traffic control system in the U.S., and we’ll do so for a few more years yet. As capability becomes available, it rolls out to everyone and is already partly in operation today.

Our air traffic system, already the safest in the world, will become safer still. Private industry joined forces to develop systems that operate seamlessly with one another, under the direction and guidance of professionals at the Federal Aviation Administration who developed the architecture and requirements and are overseeing this national safety and efficiency project.

The predictable, dedicated funding provided by the Airports and Airways Trust Fund (AATF) covers between 87 percent and 92 percent of FAA’s operating costs — including the 30,000 federal employees who operate the air traffic control system on behalf of the flying public. The rest comes from the general fund. 

Compare this to PTC, in which Congress has created an unfunded mandate, to be carried out independently by a variety of actors of varying resources and capabilities. We’re years behind schedule, some systems can’t afford to move forward and we’re all squabbling about whose responsibility it is to make rail travel safer.

The answer is to set a deadline and stick to it, set a standard and meet it, and set a budget and fund it. It is our responsibility. The traveling public deserves no less.

Jim Mathews is president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the oldest and largest national membership organization fighting for more and better trains in America.