By Robert L. Sumwalt
This week the NTSB released nearly 2,200 pages of documents related to our investigation of the deadly Amtrak accident that occurred in Philadelphia last May. As you may recall, the train derailed after entering a turn at over twice the designated speed limit. Although the investigation will continue for a few more months, making these documents public allows our investigation to be transparent. One thing we have said since the very beginning of the investigation is that an operative Positive Train Control (PTC) system could have prevented the accident.
PTC is a system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments due to over-speed, and train intrusions into work zones. Depending on the type of installation, PTC knows the train’s location by GPS or through in-track transponders. The system also knows speed limits and other restrictions, such as those provided through signals located alongside the track, similar to traffic lights. If the train is projected to violate any of these restrictions and the train engineer does not take action to prevent the violation, PTC will intervene and actually bring the train to a stop. It’s amazing technology that will save lives.
PTC was mandated by Congress in October 2008, following a deadly train-to-train accident that claimed 25 lives in Chatsworth, CA, in which a passenger train collided head-on with a freight train. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 called for PTC to be installed on approximately 60,000 miles of track by December 31, 2015. At the time the law was enacted, most outsiders felt seven years was sufficient time for the railroads to meet this mandate. The railroads disagreed, but put forth the effort to try to make it happen.
As it turns out, it wasn’t as easy as lawmakers envisioned. To date, the railroads have reportedly invested over $6 billion and hundreds of thousands of work hours to implement PTC. As with any complex system, there have been problems along the way. However, when it became apparent railroads would be unable to meet the statutory mandate — and potentially not operate — unless Congress extended the deadline, Congress did just that. Railroads now have until December 2018 to implement PTC.
To use a sports term, PTC is in its first overtime. Congress, however, has put a provision for another possible extension in the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act. If the railroads have made progress but not quite able to get the ball across the finish line by the 2018 deadline, the deadline may be extended by another two years. Disappointingly, seven railroads (Canadian National, CSX, Norfolk Southern, SunRail, Metra, MBTA, and Trinity Railway Express) have already told the Federal Railroad Administration that they will not meet the 2018 deadline.
Over the past decade, over 60 deaths, more than 1,200 injuries, and millions of dollars in damages could have been prevented or mitigated by PTC. PTC must not be allowed to go into double overtime. Unlike with a sports game, lives are at stake.
Robert L. Sumwalt is a Member of the NTSB Board.