Wednesday, December 20, 2017

US Freight and Passenger Rail Carriers Still Slow to Introduce Mandatory Safety Technology

PTC System Could Probably Have Prevented Latest Amtrak Crash
Shipping News Feature
US – The Amtrak train wreck this week which killed three people and injured dozens has reinvigorated the argument for positive train control (PTC), something we extolled the virtues of in 2013 after Congress finally decided that the technology would become mandatory after 2015. With companies such as rail freight carrier Union Pacific spending an estimated $2.9 billion on PTC, and the industry as a whole around $10 billion, Amtrak CEO Richard Harrison faced some awkward questions over an incident which was wholly avoidable.

The Amtrak train was on a new high speed service between Seattle and Portland when it crashed from a bridge whilst travelling at 80 mph in a 30mph zone and the PTC, still to be installed on the track section concerned was not yet active on the newly opened section, and is not due to be for a few months. If active, the GPS based system would have automatically caused the train to brake and the accident almost certainly avoided.

Richard Harrison, ex Delta Airlines chief, who took on the role as Amtrak boss in July, could not or would not answer why it is taking so long to fit a technology which has existed for over thirty years, and which he claimed he fully supported, saying he was a huge believer in positive train control which he said made total sense. He continued:

"Our primary concern right now is taking care of our customers and employees and we will use every available resource to assist those affected. We share everyone’s sense of urgency to identify exactly what caused this event and are cooperating fully with the investigation, led by the NTSB. Amtrak will do the right thing, based on whatever the findings indicate."

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been advocating PTC since the 1969 accident in which two Penn Central trains collided killing four people. Since that time there have been many such avoidable accidents with the railroad industry bitterly opposed to the controls until the horrific coming together of a freight and passenger train near Los Angeles in 2008, when a texting driver caused the deaths of 25 people.

Despite this, and that mandatory order from Congress, parts of the system have been lamentably slow to update. The new section of track where this latest accident occurred is owned by Sound Transit, a public agency which admitted the sensors trackside were already fitted but not yet tested or synchronised.

Photo: The Amtrak ‘Cascades’ Train 501, hangs from a bridge over Interstate 5 south of Tacoma near Olympia.