The Dec. 31, 2018, deadline for implementing positive train control (PTC) has come and gone, with most US railways missing the cutoff. Despite having previously received extensions to install positive train control on their trains and railroad tracks, many railways filed requests for an additional extension of up to two years to implement the safety system. This failure puts passenger lives at jeopardy, given the numerous fatal train crashes regulators say could have been prevented by PTC, leading critics and some lawmakers to call for sanctions against those railways that missed the deadline.
What is Positive Train Control?
Positive train control is a rail safety system designed to stop a train that is operating under unsafe circumstances that could result in a crash, such as traveling faster than posted speeds or moving on the same track as another train. When such scenarios are detected, a computer system on the train that collects data from sensors along the tracks warns the engineer to slow or stop the train. If the engineer does not respond in time, PTC takes control of the train and applies the brakes.
For PTC to work, technology on the train must cooperate with technology along the tracks, but often the railway that owns the tracks does not own the train on it. Trains often use tracks owned by other railways. Any technology installed on a train has to communicate effectively with all technology along the tracks, no matter who owns or installs that technology. Likewise, any technology along the tracks must communicate with the trains that run along it, and trains that run along the same stretch of track must also have systems that communicate with each other.
That need for communication might make implementing PTC more difficult, but as the four rail systems that met the deadline show, it is certainly possible to do. North County Transit District, one of the railways to fully implement PTC, did so along stretches of track owned by Metrolink, BNSF, Pacific Sun Railroad, and Amtrak. The railway also had to show its system was fully operable with all passenger and freight trains that run along the same stretch of tracks as it does.
Only Four Rail Systems Met the PTC Deadline
Only four rail systems in the US met the PTC deadline, with most of the rest applying for or already receiving extensions. The four who met the deadline are North County Transit District, Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp. (PATH), Portland & Western Railroad, and Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink).
Thirty-three of the remaining 37 railroads mandated to implement PTC applied for or already received approval for an extension. This is the second extension granted regarding PTC. The 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act mandated positive train control for any railway that offered intercity passenger or commuter service, or that involved transporting certain hazardous materials. The act initially set a deadline for the end of 2015, but Congress extended the deadline to the end of 2018, with the possibility of an additional two-year extension for railroads that met specific criteria.
Lack of Positive Train Control Puts Passenger Lives in Jeopardy
Train accident attorney Ronald L.M. Goldman, a longtime advocate for PTC says, “It is inarguable that PTC saves lives. And yet, the rail industry and lawmakers have continued to drag their feet, resulting in needless death and destruction.”
Positive train control will indeed save lives. That is not just a theory spouted by safety critics; the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) gave a speech in 2018 to the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials citing various fatal accidents that PTC would have prevented. According to the statement by Robert Sumwalt, since 1969, approximately 300 people have died in 150 preventable train crashes. Furthermore, since the Rail Safety Improvement Act was enacted in 2008, there have been 22 preventable train crashes that killed 23 people and injured 314 more.
Among these crashes was the May 12, 2015, Amtrak Northeast Regional train derailment in Philadelphia, in which eight passengers died and almost 200 were injured. The NTSB ruled the crash was caused by an engineer losing situational awareness due to a distraction with another train.
On Dec. 18, 2017, Amtrak train 501 sped into a curve near DuPont, Washington (15 miles north of Olympia) at more than two times the track speed. The train derailed, killing three passengers and injuring 62 individuals on the train. Another eight people on the highway under the overpass also suffered injuries.
A significant cause of preventable train crashes is operational error related to human performance. Issues such as fatigue, loss of situational awareness, and distractions result in missed train signals or other errors that can cause a fatal derailment or collision. Although PTC might not remove accidents caused by human error entirely, it would still prevent fatalities in many train accidents.
Senator Richard Blumenthal issued a statement indicating his displeasure with railroads for not meeting the deadline, noting that they have already had extensions and passenger’s lives are being put at unnecessary risk.
“These railroads had years, literally years, to implement this life-saving technology,” Blumenthal said. “There’s nothing novel or new about it.” He called on the Federal Railway Administration to shorten the extension and fine the railroads to force them to meet deadlines.