While federal regulators are still not entirely sure why an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia on May 12, killing eight people and injuring more than 200, investigators have determined that excessive speed was a significant factor. Before it derailed, the train was traveling at 106 miles per hour on a known dangerous curve, bearing an unfortunate similarity to a December 2013 crash in Spuyten Dyvil, New York. In that incident, a Metro North train traveling at 82 miles per hour—nearly three times the allowed speed—also derailed on a treacherous curve.
Four passengers died in the Spuyten Dyvil derailment, which was deemed the result of operator fatigue. In both cases, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) experts contend that a safety measure called “positive train control” (PTC) could have prevented the disasters.
PTC is a technology designed to eliminate human error by using four components: GPS satellite data, onboard locomotive equipment, the dispatching office and wayside interface units. The system communicates with the train’s onboard computer, allowing it to audibly warn the engineer and display the train’s safe braking distance based on its speed, length, width and weight, as well as the grade and curvature of the track, according to railroad operator Metrolink. If the engineer does not respond to the warning, the onboard computer will activate the brakes and safely stop the train.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said at a May press conference that Amtrak already has a system in place called the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACES), which is installed throughout most of the Northeast Corridor. It is not installed where the accident occurred, however. “That type of a system—we call it a positive train control system—is designed to enforce the civil speed, to keep the train below its maximum speed,” he said. “We have called for positive train control for many years—it’s on our most wanted list.” Congress has mandated that it be installed by the end of the year.
“Based on what we know right now, we feel that, had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” he said.
The looming question, then, is why the system was not in place long before this most recent accident. Transportation officials have been calling for PTC since 2008, when a collision in Chatsworth, California, killed 25 people. In the aftermath of that tragedy, Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, requiring each Class 1 rail carrier and each provider of regularly-scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger service to implement a PTC system by Dec. 31, 2015.
The NTSB has long been a supporter of PTC, noting, “It has been more than 45 years since the NTSB first recommended the forerunner to PTC. In the meantime, more PTC-preventable collisions and derailments occur, more lives are lost, and more people sustain injuries that change their lives forever.”
Progress has been made toward this goal, but because of high costs and the complexity of the system, Congress was considering an extension on these improvements until 2020.
The May derailment, however, has renewed the sense of urgency for PTC. “The reality is, if we believe that the cause of this incident was speed, it would have been prevented by positive train control,” said Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), testifying before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in June. “As this committee is well aware, PTC is the single most important railroad safety technological development in more than a century, and it is absolutely necessary to ensuring the kind of safety that we expect on our rail system.”
The problem is that implementation is estimated to cost $875 million for commuter railroads. “You have a limited, finite amount of money each year that you can spend on infrastructure and safety,” Peter Goelz, a former managing director of NTSB, told CNN. “Do you spend the money on high consequence, low probability events?”
Despite the many challenges facing full implementation of PTC by Dec. 31, “the Federal Railroad Administration’s role is to carry out the enforcement of the deadline that is mandated by the Congress, and to ensure that railroads implement PTC as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible,” Feinberg said. “And so, on Jan. 1, 2016, the FRA will be prepared to take necessary enforcement actions against railroads that have failed to meet the deadline.”
Amtrak said it intends to meet the PTC deadline on the tracks it owns or controls in the Northeast Corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington and is the busiest railway in North America.