Amtrak derailment spotlights delay in train safety upgrades

The deadly Amtrak derailment in Washington state has turned the spotlight on Congress’s decision to delay a deadline for all railroads to install new train safety technology.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that a high-speed Amtrak train traveling from Seattle to Portland was going 80 mph in a 30-mph-zone when it derailed on Monday, leaving at least three people dead and scores more injured.

The speeding passenger train, which was on its inaugural run, was traveling across a highway overpass and about to enter a curve when several train cars jumped the tracks. 

Positive Train Control (PTC), which automatically slows down a train that is going over the speed limit, was not yet active along the newly upgraded track.

The technology has been installed on the track segments in question but is not operational yet, according to Sound Transit, which owns the tracks. The target date to have PTC up and running in the area is the second quarter of 2018.

PTC was originally supposed to be in place nationwide two years ago, but lawmakers pushed back the deadline at the urging of industry groups. 

“Unconscionable delays in implementing Positive Train Control now a potential factor in Amtrak tragedy. We cannot afford more delays sought by railroads,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said on Twitter on Tuesday. “Too many lives lost while railroads failed to install Positive Train Control. Implementation is absolutely essential by 2018 deadline.” 

While the cause of the derailment is still unknown, NTSB investigators will be exploring whether PTC could have prevented the crash. The safety board determined that the technology could have prevented a similar 2015 crash in Philadelphia, in which an Amtrak engineer was speeding as he headed into a curve.

Safety advocates have criticized how slow railroads have been in implementing the potentially life-saving technology, which can prevent derailments, collisions and improper track switching.

Congress originally gave commuter and freight railroads until the end of 2015 to install the technology. The law was passed in 2008, following a deadly train crash in California. 

But as railroads struggled to meet compliance deadlines, lawmakers agreed to push back the PTC implementation date to at least Dec. 31, 2018, with the option for a two-year extension.

Amtrak has so far equipped 49 percent of its locomotives and 67 percent of its track segments with PTC as of the second quarter of this year — the latest data available. 

One reason that railroads have been slow to install the technology is the cost. The Federal Railroad Administration has granted more than $650 million in federal funding to passenger railroads and issued a $1 billion loan to New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to help with PTC implementation.

While President Trump was quick to call for support of his forthcoming infrastructure proposal in the wake of Monday’s train derailment, it’s unclear whether the package would include any additional money for PTC. 

“I don’t have any updates on the infrastructure plan at this time but will let you know if that changes,” a White House spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Tags Amtrak Derailment Donald Trump Positive train control Rail transportation in the United States Railway safety

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