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Four factors that led to the deadly Amtrak derailment

Four factors that led to the deadly Amtrak derailment

The fatal Amtrak Cascades derailment in Washington State between Tacoma and Olympia on Dec, 18 killed three people and injured scores of others. It has brought the issue of positive train control (PTC), a technology that automatically activates the brakes of trains to meet speed limits or red lights, to the forefront of national debate once again.

The whole point of the new “Point Defiance Bypass” on which the accident occurred was to provide a much straighter route than the old, coast-hugging, windy route that was shared with a lot of BNSF freight trains.

The new bypass would also allow fairly consistent speeds of 79 miles per hour along large stretches of the track. But federal investigators soon announced that the train had not slowed down from its circa-80-mph straightaway speed before heading into the curve to take the bridge over I-5, which had a much slower speed limit of 30 mph. While the investigation is only in the initial stages, the National Transportation Safety Board has indicated that “overspeed” is the likely cause.

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If the cause was indeed simple overspeed, PTC would probably have prevented the disaster. But service on the new Bypass began before PTC was fully installed and implemented on the new route. (Railroads now have until December 31, 2018 to achieve full PTC implementation pursuant to a mandate in federal law.) While we await more details from the NTSB investigation, a few conclusions can already be drawn.

 

Beware of artificial, self-imposed deadlines. PTC was already installed and implemented on the old, windy, freight-train-filled coastal route. Someone at Washington DOT or Amtrak decided to cancel the service on the PTC-compliant old route and instead open up service on the Bypass months before the PTC service was operational. Why the hurry?

The cost of upgrading the Bypass was largely paid by federal stimulus money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that had to be spent, in its entirety, by Sept. 30, 2017. This explains why Washington DOT (WSDOT) was in such a hurry to complete construction of the Bypass, but it does not explain why they were in such a hurry to open the service on the new bypass before the PTC system could be installed. The most likely explanation is that WSDOT and Amtrak had promised, years ago, that the new service would be in operation in 2017 and felt obligated to stick to that schedule, with disastrous results.

Shared responsibility equals lack of accountability. Responsibility for PTC implementation, and rail safety in general, on the Point Defiance Bypass was shared by several entities. Most of the trains themselves are owned by the Washington and Oregon state governments. The trains are operated by Amtrak. The track and right-of-way are owned by Sound Transit (the Seattle-area transit agency). And the signaling and dispatching of trains along the route is handled by BNSF, which also owns the track on either side of the bypass.

Asking “who was in charge of PTC on the Bypass” inevitably leads to finger-pointing between all of those entities because they all have to work together to implement their piece of it. In situations like this, USDOT could do more to designate a lead entity to set deadlines and be publicly accountable for PTC implementation.

Follow your own rules. The Cascades route is unusual in that the train cars used do not meet federal crashworthiness standards. Amtrak got permission 16 years ago to operate lightweight Talgo trainsets on this route only because the mountainous terrain put weight at a premium. But the crashworthiness waiver only applied to the old route, not the Point Defiance Bypass.

Four months ago, Amtrak applied for a waiver so they could operate the lightweight trainsets on the new Bypass. FRA public comment period on Amtrak’s request is still open until Jan. 8, 2018. But on Dec. 14, FRA went ahead and gave Amtrak approval to use the Talgo trainsets on the new Bypass even though the FRA letter noted that “In the current request, while Amtrak provided an overview of the Lakewood Subdivision, it did not provide a similar risk assessment, analysis of the proposed operating conditions, or a comparison to the current operations.”

The FRA letter ordered Amtrak to provide a written summary of safety test results on the new route within 30 days of the date of the letter and ordered Amtrak to provide a quantitative risk assessment of the new route within 60 days of the date of the letter. But the train derailed within four days of the date of the letter.

Unfunded mandate analysis matters. For-profit freight railroads have already spent $8 billion complying with the federal PTC mandate and estimate they will have to spend another $2 billion to finish their systems. Compliance with the mandate will also inflict an estimated $3.5 billion in financial costs on commuter railroads, which must be borne by the state and local governments that own them. New York City commuter railroads have borrowed almost a billion dollars to meet the mandate, and other cash-strapped cities are crying out for federal grants to help them meet the burden.

In 1995, complaints about “unfunded federal mandates” caused Congress to enact a law requiring the Congressional Budget Office to estimate the cost of such mandates in bills coming up for a vote and provide for a separate vote in the House and Senate to question the costs of the mandate.

But CBO was unable to estimate the cost of the PTC mandate on freight railroads beyond a generality of “a few billion dollars,” and the expansion of the mandate to commuter railroads happened on the Senate floor — not in committee — so CBO was not required to estimate its costs at all. When Congress chooses to handle major legislation in a way that avoids rigorous analysis of its costs and implications, the private sector, or state and local governments, often pay the price.

Jeff Davis is a senior fellow and editor of Eno Transportation Weekly at the Eno Center for Transportation.