Tag Archives: Positive Train Control

PTC Must Not Go Into Double Overtime

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Member Sumwalt on scene of the Amtrak 188 accidentThis 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.

Promote Completion of Rail Safety Initiatives posterPTC 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.

PTC in 2015: A Deadline We Can Live With

Member Robert Sumwalt on the scene of the Amtrak Train #188 Derailment in Philadelphia, PA
Member Robert Sumwalt on the scene of the Amtrak Train #188 Derailment in Philadelphia, PA

By Mark Jones

As I write this blog, the nation’s eyes are on the derailment of Amtrak train No. 188 in Philadelphia, and the resulting deaths and hundreds of injuries. Like others at NTSB, my thoughts are with the family members of those who were lost, and we hope for a full and speedy recovery for those who were injured.

But this blog contains no breaking news about our investigation into that derailment, which is in its earliest stage, and which might not be complete for another year or more.

Nor does this blog contain any new detail about the Metro North derailment more than a year ago, in which four other people died and at least 61 were injured.

Rather, this blog is about positive train control (PTC,) a technology that could have prevented both tragedies and many more. Positive train control is a technological safety net for the train operator, which stops a train when the operator doesn’t – but needs to.

The NTSB has been calling for a system like this for more than 45 years. It was on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements from the list’s inception in 1990 until Congress overwhelmingly passed The Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) of 2008.

The RSIA mandates that PTC be implemented on certain railroads nationwide by the end of 2015 – including the rail lines on which both of the accident trains mentioned above travelled. Public safety demands that the railroads comply with Congress’ mandate this year.

Yet there is still doubt whether PTC systems will be implemented nationwide this year as required by law. That is why Implement Positive Train Control in 2015 is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List this year.

If you are wondering whether a stretch of track near you is protected by PTC, contact the Federal Railroad Administration.

If you are wondering whether it should be, by the end of this year, the answer is likely “yes.” That is not just the opinion of the NTSB – it is the law.

December 31, 2015, is the deadline for implementing PTC. It is a deadline that railroads – and passengers – can live with.

To learn more about Positive Train Control, see our 2013 forum, Positive Train Control: Is It On Track?

40 Years Ago: London’s Moorgate Tube Crash

By Christopher A. Hart

moorgateundergroundOn February 28, 1975, the world’s oldest subway system suffered one of its deadliest-ever accidents. At the London Underground’s Moorgate terminus, a train failed to stop, continued through an overrun tunnel equipped with a sand drag and a hydraulic buffer stop, and crashed into a wall.

Forty-three people lost their lives in the accident, and another 74 were injured. The U.K.’s Department of the Environment investigated the collision and reported that the accident train was found not to be defective. While the sand drag and the hydraulic buffer proved ineffective in the circumstances of the accident, another factor continued to draw interest for decades after the tragedy.

Why did the driver of the train not stop?

Since the driver was among those who died in the collision, the answer will never be conclusively known – in the conventional sense.

After the accident, however, a system dubbed “Moorgate Protection” was proposed, which would automatically slow trains at dead-end termini. Within a decade, “Moorgate Protection” was in use at all such termini in the London Underground.

Technological improvements have saved lives and prevented property damage and injuries in all modes of transportation. In the world of passenger rail and mass transit, we’re in a far safer world today, now that technology can act as a backup and prevent accidents even when human train operators do not.

NTSB recommendations urge the use of technology as a safety net when the human train crew fails. Positive train control, or PTC, uses technology to warn train crew members, and if necessary, apply the train brakes, when trains might strike one another or enter work zones from which they are barred.

For passenger rail systems that operate between cities, Congress has mandated that PTC be implemented by December 31, 2015.

Congress took this action in response to a 2008 collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people and injured more than 100. In 2013 a Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx, killing four and injuring 61. Both of these accidents could have been prevented with PTC.

The NTSB has been urging a forerunner to PTC since years before the Moorgate Tube Crash. The NTSB’s position goes back to yet another deadly train crash in 1969 in Darien, Connecticut.

This year, “Implement Positive Train Control in 2015” is on our Most Wanted List of safety improvements.

Railroads have until December 31 of this year to comply with the law and implement PTC. After 45 years of NTSB recommendations, and more than six years to meet Congress’ deadline, we should not have to wait any longer. The time to act is now.

The anniversary of the Moorgate Tube Crash is a fitting reminder that PTC can provide an essential backup to the behavior of a human engineer.

Extending this deadline is extending the length of time that passengers and crew members go without this vital backup protection.

Positive Train Control Saves Lives

By Robert Sumwalt

NTSB Most Wanted List 2014 - Implement Positive Train Control
NTSB Most Wanted List 2014 – Implement Positive Train Control

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.

“Snow” your love for safety: Winter storm roundup edition

Traffic snarls in Atlanta due to wintery weatherToday hasn’t been a good day for traveling on the east coast, but there’s good news on the transportation safety front nonetheless.

The Port Authority of NY & NJ has announced weekend closures of two PATH stations in order to install Positive Train Control technology on the lines. NTSB has long been advocating for PTC implementation, and the issue is again on our Most Wanted List. We’re encouraged to see the steps PATH and other rail operators are taking to implement PTC systems and to make rail travel safer.

The National Safety Council released its preliminary estimate of 2013 motor vehicle fatalities, and their analysis shows a 3% decline in fatalities from 2012. Every decline in fatalities is a step toward reaching zero, but as NSC notes, more than 90% of crashes are due to human error and ultimately preventable, which is why NTSB includes eliminating both distraction and substance-impaired driving on our Most Wanted List.