Amtrak crash: Why wasn't automatic speed control operating?

Investigators say Tuesday night’s Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia could have been prevented by a control system that was in place but not yet operational. Critics want to know why.

Julio Cortez/AP
Workers install new track Friday on the site where a deadly train derailment occurred earlier in the week in Philadelphia. Amtrak is working to restore Northeast Corridor rail service between New York City and Philadelphia.

The more investigators learn about this week’s Amtrak accident, the more convinced they are that a safety device already available could have prevented the deadly derailment. The question many are asking is: Why wasn’t the Positive Train Control System (PTC) in place to automatically slow Train 188 as it accelerated to more than 100 miles an hour, barreling into a curve designated for just 50 miles-per-hour?

The short answer is, the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES), an important part of PTC, was in place on that portion of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail line, but it was still being tested before becoming fully operational.

To operate, the system uses GPS, transponders, and other well-known technologies. Here’s the way Amtrak describes it in an employee newsletter earlier this year:

“When an unsafe movement occurs, ACSES audibly alerts the locomotive engineer and displays a safe braking distance based on the train’s speed, length, width and weight, and the grade and curve of the track. If the locomotive engineer does not respond to the audible warning and screen display, the onboard computer will activate the brakes and safely bring the train to a stop.”

According to Amtrak, ACSES is currently operational on 400 miles of track, including the New England Line from Boston to New Haven, Conn.; the New York Line from New Brunswick to Trenton, N.J.; and the Mid-Atlantic Line from Perryville, Md., to Wilmington.

Amtrak plans to implement ACSES on 1,200 more miles of track, including the remainder of the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C., to New Rochelle, N.Y.; the Harrisburg Line from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pa.; the Springfield Line from Springfield, Mass., to New Haven, Conn.; and the Empire Line from Penn Station to Spuyten Duyvil in New York City and Albany to Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Regarding Tuesday night’s derailment outside of Philadelphia, which killed eight people and injured more than 200 of the 243 aboard, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters Thursday, "I can confidently say PTC would have prevented this accident.”

Investigators are waiting to question the train's engineer, Brandon Bostian, who received a head injury and was knocked unconscious in the crash, then found his cell phone and called 911.

Mr. Bostian’s attorney, Robert Goggin, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the engineer "has absolutely no recollection whatsoever" of the immediate events surrounding the accident, but he indicated that Bostian’s memory is likely to improve as he recovers from the concussion. Mr. Goggin described his client – who he said cooperated fully with initial police inquiries (including providing without warrant a blood sample and turning over his cell phone) – as “distraught” at the news about loss of life and many injuries.

Following a fatal train accident in California, Congress in 2008 passed legislation requiring railroads to install Positive Train Control technology by the end of 2015, but there have been delays as rail company lobbyists pushed for an extended time frame based on cost and feasibility. On its website, the Association of American Railroads describes the challenge as it sees it:

PTC is an unprecedented technical and operational challenge. Since enactment of RSIA [Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008], railroads have devoted enormous human and financial resources to develop a fully functioning PTC system over the 60,000 miles that are subject to the PTC mandate. Progress to date has been substantial. Railroads have retained more than 2,400 signal system personnel to implement PTC and has already spent $5 billion on PTC development and deployment. Railroads expect to spend more than $9 billion before development and installation is complete.

Nevertheless, due to PTC's complexity and the enormity of the implementation task – and the fact that much of the technology PTC requires simply did not exist when the PTC mandate was passed and has had to be developed from scratch – much work remains to be done. Despite railroads' best efforts, various technical and non-technical challenges make full development and deployment of PTC by 2015 impossible.

Many members of Congress – especially Democrats on the East and West Coasts where much rail traffic exists – aren’t buying the industry’s push for delays in making PTC systems operational.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California said, “The railroad industry has been lobbying furiously to delay the mandate, and the Senate Commerce Committee has put forward a bill granting a blanket extension for five to seven years. In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy.”

“To the degree that extensions are necessary based on legitimate technology or funding issues, they should be handled on a case-by-case basis with a limited time frame,” Senator Feinstein said. “In 2012, the Senate passed language along those lines, though it did not ultimately become law. This year I introduced a bill with similar language to keep pressure on the railroads. I hope the Senate will again vote to support the fastest possible deployment of PTC. The Amtrak tragedy and other recent accidents that could have been prevented by PTC underscore the simple fact that further unnecessary delays are unacceptable and irresponsible.”

Senator Feinstein’s bill, the Positive Train Control Safety Act , is cosponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut, Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut, and Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts.

Over the past decade, there have been about 31 derailments per year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, The Washington Post reports. That number is significantly down from the 54 derailments that occurred per year over the decade before. There have been nine derailments so far this year.

“With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities,” Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman wrote on the company’s website this week. “On behalf of the entire Amtrak family, I offer our sincere sympathies and prayers for them and their loved ones. Amtrak takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event.”

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