On May 10, 1869, 150 years ago today, a golden spike was driven home at Promontory Summit, in what was then the Utah Territory, by Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford. This momentous event joined the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, completing the first transcontinental railroad, just 7 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act authorizing land grants and government financing to US railroads for the purpose of joining the east and the west.
As we know, the project was a tremendous success, but it certainly had its challenges.
In 1863, another act established the gauge for the project at 4 ft., 8½ inches (which became the standard gauge). At the time, gauges varied among railways in the United States. The goal of the transcontinental railroad was to ensure that two railroads met in Utah and were “interoperable” when it came time to begin service. A small difference in width would mean no transcontinental railroad: passengers and freight would have to be offloaded to a new train when incompatible rails met, creating a bottleneck affecting thousands of miles of track.
It wouldn’t have inspired confidence in the transcontinental railroad if the four final spikes couldn’t be driven in because the railroad gauges didn’t match!
Leland Stanford, the man who drove the golden spike, went on to found Stanford University. He could not imagine the contributions to transportation that his namesake university would make, including those to the global positioning system used in positive train control (PTC) systems.
Just as the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads worked to ensure their track was seamless, today’s railroads are focused on implementing PTC by ensuring interoperability among many systems—passenger, commuter, and freight trains must be able to seamlessly communicate and operate across all railroad networks.
PTC isn’t new. The NTSB has been urging railroads to implement it, in some form, since 1970, 1 year after the United States met President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon. Since then, the NTSB has investigated 152 PTC-preventable accidents that resulted in more than 300 fatalities and 6,700 injuries. PTC remains on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.
Seven years passed between when Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862 to when the golden spike was driven home at Promontory Summit. Eight years passed from JFK’s speech to Congress about a moonshot in 1961 to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the gray dust of the lunar surface. PTC was mandated by Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. It has now been more than 10 years since the act was signed into law.
Today’s golden spike celebration might well feature photos of two locomotives posed head-to-head, as they were for the original golden spike celebration 150 years ago. Perhaps that would also be a fitting image to promote PTC, which, among other safety benefits, would automatically stop trains in time to prevent train-to-train collisions.
As we commemorate 1869’s golden spike, the NTSB continues to await implementation of fully operational PTC, which is long overdue. Let’s end the wait and start planning our own commemoration of the day we finally made all rail travel exponentially safer.