We Can Do Big Things. Just Look at Positive Train Control

By Member Jennifer Homendy

After 50 years of investigation, advocacy, and persistence by the NTSB, positive train control (PTC) is now a reality across the country!

This video highlights the NTSB’s more than 50 year effort in investigating PTC-preventable accidents and advocacy for this life-saving technology.

PTC systems use GPS and other technology to prevent certain train collisions and derailments. It could have been lifesaving in the 154 rail accidents that have killed more than 300 people, and injured more than 6,800 passengers, crewmembers, and track workers in major accidents stretching across the nation, from Darien, Connecticut, in 1969, to Chatsworth, California, in 2008, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2015, and DuPont, Washington, in 2017.

But let’s step back and marvel at this real achievement—and the effort it took. Safety improvements are never easy or quick. It took more than 50 years of advocacy by the NTSB and historic action by Congress to make PTC a reality. For many of these years, the NTSB was a lonely voice for safety, pushing for PTC despite opposition from railroads over the price tag and technological hurdles.

I know how tough the battle was because I was there. As staff director for the House subcommittee charged with overseeing rail safety, I played a role in ensuring that any effort to move legislation forward to improve rail safety included the NTSB’s recommendation to implement PTC. When I got to the NTSB, one of my priorities was to ensure that mandate was implemented.

It truly is remarkable in Washington to keep such clear focus on PTC across so many administrations, through so many changes in Congress and at the NTSB.

Earlier this month, I had the honor of moderating a panel of current and former NTSB leaders and staff who recalled the long, bumpy road to PTC implementation. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and former agency heads Chris Hart, Debbie Hersman, and Jim Hall recalled their own contributions and noted how remarkable the agency’s sheer persistence was in a time of short attention spans and quickly changing priorities.

It was so uplifting to hear their personal reflections of their time on the Board fighting for PTC, and their continued commitment to the agency and its critical safety mission. But it was the staff panel that really defined persistence. Generations of rail investigators and other staff worked every one of the 154 PTC-preventable accidents over the decades, launching to horrific crash scenes only to discover similarities pointing to the same solution: PTC. They spent holidays working. Missed birthdays and anniversaries. Completed their important jobs regardless of on-scene obstacles and personal priorities.

Recording of the January 14, 2021, NTSB live‑streamed discussion about Positive Train Control implementation.

The public doesn’t often see what goes on behind the scenes at accident investigations, after investigations are completed when recommendations need to be implemented, and the tremendous work required to keep those recommendations at the forefront of discussions to improve safety. As stated in the first panel, board members come and go, but it’s the staff that keep these critical safety issues alive. It was truly remarkable and heartwarming to hear their reflections of the agency’s work and how that work has impacted public safety, as well as how it affected them personally. I hope it gave the public a sense of what it takes to stay focused on an issue for five full decades.

Was it worth it? You bet. PTC will save lives.

Other safety improvements have also taken many years to implement. Midair collisions were dramatically reduced by the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). That took decades to put in place. Airliner fuel-tank inerting systems, which addressed fuel tank explosions like the one that brought down TWA Flight 800 in 1996, also took years. And let’s not forget about the long fight for airbags and seat belts in passenger vehicles. All these transportation safety improvements were strongly and relentlessly advocated for by the NTSB.

We can do big things in America. We can save more lives on our rails, in the sky, in communities where pipelines are located, on the water, and on the highway. But major safety improvements like PTC take time, money and, perhaps most of all, incredible perseverance.

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