A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlights the concern that many American railroads have failed to make passenger safety a priority by continually missing the deadline to implement Positive Train Control. The report, released Feb. 28, 2018, suggests that up to two-thirds of commuter railroads will either miss the Positive Train Control deadline entirely or will fail to qualify for an extension. Positive Train Control (PTC) is a vital system that can prevent fatal accidents, as highlighted by recent tragedies that safety advocates argued could have been avoided. Each of the train crashes is a reminder of the devastation that can occur when railroad companies fail to make passenger safety the top priority.
What is Positive Train Control?
Positive Train Control is a system that combines radar and track technology to allow a computer to operate a train if the engineer fails to do so. This includes slowing or stopping a speeding train and recognizing if a train is traveling on the wrong tracks or is on a collision course. The goal of Positive Train Control is to minimize or eliminate the risk of accidents due to human error. Implementing PTC, however, requires railroads to install technology on their locomotives and tracks, and to coordinate in situations where trains operated by one company use tracks owned by another.
Railroads Already Given Extension to Positive Train Control Deadline
In 2008, following a massive train crash in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people, Congress set a deadline of 2015 for railroads to install and use PTC. In late 2015, however, it was clear that the railroads would not meet the deadline and Congress extended the deadline to the end of 2018. Despite that extension, according to the GAO, up to two-thirds of America’s 29 commuter railroads are not likely to meet that deadline.
Specifically, the GAO found that many railroads failed to meet important milestones as part of the schedule to implement PTC, which means their system will not be fully operational by the December 31, 2018, deadline.
Implementing PTC involves installing, integrating, and testing hardware components both on locomotives and along the track, but many railroads “may not have allocated sufficient time to complete these milestones.”
“For example, FRA [the Federal Railroad Administration] estimates that field testing (one of the milestones) takes at least one year, but GAO found that 14 commuter railroads plan to start this testing less than a year before the 2018 deadline, increasing the potential risk that this milestone will not be completed,” the GAO wrote.
GAO Assigns Some Blame to Federal Railroad Administration for PTC Delays
In its report, the GAO assigns some of the blame in the failure to meet the Positive Train Control deadline to the FRA, noting that the administration failed to systematically communicate information to railroads, choosing instead to use informal measures. Additionally, the administration reportedly shared inconsistent information with the railroad industry regarding PTC.
The GAO recommended that the FRA adopt a method in which it systematically communicates information to railroads and further that it use a risk-based approach to prioritizing its tasks.
Lawmakers Recommend Fines if Railroads Miss Positive Train Control Deadline
In response to the GAO’s report, members of the Senate’s Commerce Committee suggested railroads that did not meet their PTC deadlines should face enforcement actions.
Both Republican and Democratic members of the panel agreed that railroads who fail to meet the Positive Train Control deadlines should face penalties, given that they have already had an extension. At a hearing into the matter, Senator Bill Nelson, a Democratic panel member from Florida, said “these tragedies can be prevented, they should be prevented and that’s why the industry must do a better job of implementing PTC and get it done quickly, and that’s why the U.S. government ought to crack down.”
National Transportation Safety Board Called Recent Train Crashes “Preventable”
Multiple fatal train crashes that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said would have been prevented if railroads already had operational PTC have highlighted the urgent need for Positive Train Control. Among those tragedies:
- The December 18 Washington Amtrak derailment that killed three people and injured approximately 100 others. The NTSB’s preliminary report noted that the train was traveling at almost 50 mph above the area’s speed limit.
- The February 4, 2018, crash involving an Amtrak passenger train and a parked CSX freight train. An NTSB report indicated the Amtrak passenger train was diverted to the wrong tracks where it collided with the stationary freight train. Two people died, and more than 100 others were injured.
In both train crashes, NTSB members noted that if Positive Train Control were working properly, the accidents could have been prevented.
“We have recommended PTC for decades,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, NTSB board member. “Unfortunately, the deadline was moved farther into the future, and every year that we wait to implement PTC to its fullest extent means that more people will be killed and injured.”
The shameful foot-dragging exhibited by our nation’s railroads is a prime example of corporate greed: placing profits over safety. The outrageous history of delay in implementation of this forty year old technology well illustrates the need for vigorous regulation to require installation of systems that save lives. It is well past time for congress to act in the interests of passenger safety.