By Robert Sumwalt
Today I had the honor of representing the NTSB at a hearing before the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials in the U.S. House of Representatives. The topic of the hearing was passenger and freight rail safety, an issue of the utmost importance to the NTSB. My testimony emphasized that any comprehensive approach to improving rail safety must include Positive Train Control, also called PTC.
PTC is designed to protect trains from human error. If an engineer attempts to operate past a red signal or operate too fast, a PTC system intervenes by stopping the train before a crash or derailment occurs. Simply put, widely-implemented PTC has the potential to prevent crashes and save lives.
Sadly, there are many real-world examples that demonstrate the need for PTC. For example, in September 2008, a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, California. Twenty-five people were killed in that crash, and more than 100 more were injured. The NTSB’s investigation revealed that the engineer was texting while operating the train. He ran past a red stop signal and crashed into an oncoming train. The NTSB determined that PTC would have prevented this deadly crash.
In the aftermath of that tragedy, Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The Act requires each Class 1 rail carrier and each provider of regularly-scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger service to implement a PTC system by December 31, 2015. I’m pleased to report that progress is being made toward this lifesaving goal. Just last week, Metrolink became the first commuter rail system to implement PTC, when it began a revenue service demonstration under the authority of BNSF Railroad. While this is just a demonstration project, it certainly is a start in the right direction. Metrolink reports it will be implementing PTC fully throughout its entire system before the Congressionally-mandated deadline.
Earlier this month, I visited a large Class 1 freight railroad to get an update on their progress toward implementing PTC. I walked away from that meeting believing this railroad is firmly committed to the project. That one company alone has invested more than $1 billion in PTC, adding over 1000 workers to devote to the project, beginning the enormous effort of retrofitting locomotives, training train and track maintenance crews, installing trackside equipment, and developing elaborate computer networks to allow PTC to work. In spite of the commitment by this railroad and others, however, an August 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to the U.S. Senate indicated that the majority of railroads will not complete PTC implementation by the 2015 deadline. There has even been talk of extending the deadline, despite the seven year timeline provided by the original law.
As I noted in my testimony today, while NTSB commends the enormous and costly implementation efforts being made by many, we realize that for each day that goes by without PTC, the risk of more PTC-preventable accidents remains. That point was driven home again on December 1, 2013, when a Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx, killing four people and injured dozens of others. While the exact cause of the accident is still under investigation, we do know the train entered a curve at approximately 82 mph, where the maximum authorized speed was 30 mph — in other words, something that PTC would prevent.
It is because of our investigations of accidents like this – and 24 others in the past decade that could have been prevented by PTC – that the NTSB would be disappointed by any delay in PTC implementation. Implementation of PTC is needed now, not later. Lives depend on it.