On Track for Rail Safety

by Robert Sumwalt

Today is the 2013 Railroad Day on the Hill, a day when rail industry workers from across the nation meet with members of Congress to discuss their key issues, one of which is the safety of the U.S. rail system. At the National Transportation Safety Board, one of our most important issues is Positive Train Control.

Trains are a part of daily life, whether transporting passengers or cargo. However, we do not have to accept train accidents, injuries, and deaths as a given, particularly those involving head-on train collisions. Such collisions are often due to human factors, such as fatigue, sleeping disorders, use of medications, and distractions. Because of these human performance deficiencies, the NTSB has advocated the implementation of a system that compensates for human error and that incorporates collision avoidance to prevent train collisions.

In 1970, the NTSB first addressed the need to require a form of automatic train control. Unfortunately, despite some progress in the four decades since that recommendation, train collisions still occur. Just since June 2004, the NTSB has investigated 22 train accidents that took 57 lives, injured more than 1,000, and caused millions of dollars in damages, all of which could have been prevented or mitigated by positive train control.

PTC works by monitoring the location and movement of trains, then slowing or stopping a train that is not being operated in accordance with signal systems and operating rules. PTC prevents train-to-train collisions and overspeed derailments. PTC systems are in limited use across the country, but for positive train control to reach its greatest safety potential, it must be widely implemented.

One deadly incident occurred in September 2008, when a head-on collision between a passenger train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, resulted in 25 deaths and more than 150 injuries. It was determined that the prohibited use of a wireless device – specifically text messaging –distracted the engineer from his duties. In the aftermath of this deadly collision, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, requiring all trains providing passenger service and freight trains operating on lines carrying toxic- and poison-by-inhalation hazardous materials to have PTC by the end of 2015. Despite challenges to making this a reality, the NTSB feels it is crucial that progress toward this goal of widely-implemented PTC continue.

Our job at the NTSB is to make recommendations that will save lives. We believe that implementing PTC will do that: prevent collisions, avert injuries, and save lives. That’s why recently we convened a forum to discuss the implementation of PTC and why we have included PTC on our Most Wanted List highlighting the most critical changes needed to improve transportation safety. We look forward to a future with fewer train collisions and improved safety for everyone using the rail system.


Robert L. Sumwalt was sworn in as the 37th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on August 21, 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

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