Amtrak crash: Why safety improvements lag even as industry advances

An emergency braking system mandated by Congress a decade ago was still not installed on the section of track where Amtrak 501 derailed. Experts point to a reluctance in the railroad business to make improvements without profit incentives.

Steve Dipaola/Reuters
Rescue personnel and equipment are seen Dec. 18 at the scene where an Amtrak passenger train derailed on a bridge over interstate highway I-5 in DuPont, Wash.

Passengers on the Amtrak 501 leaving Seattle for Portland, Ore. were handed commemorative lanyards early Monday morning. After all, the new Cascades train was on its maiden run, part of a much-awaited expansion of commuter rail in the eco-conscious Pacific Northwest.

As the brand new 4,400-hp “Charger” locomotive got underway – and just after one passenger quipped, “Wow, we’re going fast” – witnesses said they heard “crumpling, crashing, and screaming” as the 13-car train derailed near Tacoma, Wash., killing three people and injuring more than 100.

The crash caught American commuter rail service – including railroad companies and a federally-funded manager, Amtrak – at a juncture of colliding trends: ridership is growing rapidly even as the industry grapples with inertia over safety problems. The result has been three major derailments in three years.

As investigators focus on track conditions and whether the 501 was going too fast into a curve – preliminary reports suggested the train was traveling at nearly 80 miles per hour in a 30 m.p.h. zone – questions are already arising over why a long-delayed emergency braking system called positive train control, or PTC, wasn’t operational a decade after Congress had mandated it.

The answers provided by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), railroad experts say, are likely to touch on Amtrak’s cultural struggles to enforce safety rules, including an age-old reluctance in the railroad business to make improvements without clear profit incentives.

“This was a new route around the Tacoma area, that was the first train over it.… The bridge looked rickety, and it’s on a curve – all of which raises questions about whether the engineer was exceeding 79 miles per hour while there was no system in place to enforce a lower speed limit,” says MIT-trained signaling expert Steven Ditmeyer of Alexandria, Va., who has expressed reservations about riding Amtrak. “I’m hoping it will be a wake-up call.”

Andrew Harnik/AP
National Transportation Safety Board Member Bella Dinh-Zarr pauses as she speaks at NTSB headquarters in Washington Dec. 18 about the Amtrak train derailment.

The accident occurred after Amtrak registered a record year in 2016, during which it served 31.2 million riders. Ridership has grown steadily, especially on mid-range trips and commuter runs like the Cascade in the Pacific Northwest and the Downeaster in New England, both of which have seen double-digit percentage growth year-to-year.

The $181-million Cascades expansion was a bid to build ridership by increasing service and cutting 10 minutes off the Seattle-to-Portland run. That meant business travelers who have been used to disembarking at lunchtime could instead be in town for a 10 o’clock meeting.

Yet there were warning signs. Don Anderson, the mayor of Lakewood, Wash., warned on Dec. 4 that high-speed trains along the new route would make it “virtually inevitable that someone is going to get killed” without first making more improvements to signage and crossing grades.

And there appeared to be immediate similarities to crashes in 2015 and 2016 in which investigators cited operator error and a lax safety culture as contributing to deadly derailments outside Philadelphia and in Chester, Pa. In both cases, the NTSB found, a fully operable PTC system could have avoided the deadly destruction.

Completing the Chester derailment probe on Nov. 16, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt wrote that “Amtrak’s safety culture is failing – and is primed to fail again – until and unless Amtrak changes the way it practices safety management.”

Amtrak insists it is in the process of implementing 13 major new safety recommendations. What is more, the new Cascades train was fully equipped with PTC. The tracks, however, which are owned by Sound Transit, are not scheduled to receive the improvements until the second quarter of 2018 – several months after the inauguration of the new service.

A Union Pacific Railroad veteran, Jeff Young, recently told the American Association of Railroads that such delays are entirely due to the sheer complexity of building a from-scratch geo-mapping system of wayside signals across 60,000 miles of track. Some 2,400 engineers are at work on the project, he said, noting that “it is like creating an entirely new air traffic control system.”

Yet the $10 billion price tag for installing PTC has also challenged the bottom line-focused rail industry, which historically requires an “economic case” for improvements, as Bob Tuzik, a journalist who covers the railroad industry, wrote recently in “Interface: The Journal of Wheel/Rail Interaction.”

“One problem was that capacity improvements and running time improvements did not come about, but additional costs were incurred,” says Mr. Ditmeyer.

But tying the deeper issue of Amtrak’s safety culture to the Tacoma crash “is in the apples and oranges world,” argues University of Delaware railway expert Allan Zarembski, author of “The Art and Science of Rail Grinding.”

“The railroads are working on PTC, and it wasn’t implemented [on the new Cascades line], but that is not a surprise” given that Congress saw fit to extend the implementation deadline to 2018, he says.

“Whether the railroads agree or disagree with PTC implementation, they are required by law to have it implemented, and they are working aggressively to do that,” he adds. “It’s not something you can turn around and say, ‘Let’s do it today.’ It is very complex, expensive, difficult, and takes time.”

Before he came over to rail travel from Delta Air Lines, new Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson received an award from air traffic control leadership for his focus on the technical aspects of getting airplanes from point A to point B on time, and safely. That focus included pushing “next gen” air traffic control systems – which are in many ways similar to PTC.

In that way, Mr. Anderson may be primed to understand “the subtleties of this command and control, this train control,” says Ditmeyer.

“I’m right now personally looking to [Anderson] to take a leadership role on safety,” he says, “because at Delta he understood that [next-generation signaling] affected the efficiency of the total operation, whereas most other railroad CEOs view the signal people as problems, because they are the guys that stop the trains.”

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