Railroads Put Lives at Risk by Delaying Positive Train Control

Positive Train Control implementation delays

Despite having received an extension, railroads are still reporting delays in Positive Train Control implementation, which put passenger lives at risk. Already, since Congress granted the initial extension, several fatal train crashes have been linked to a lack of positive train control (PTC). With a deadline for PTC looming on December 31, 2018, at least one railroad has asked for yet another extension. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates many commuter railroads will not meet the deadline.

As a result, many more passenger lives will be put in jeopardy by railroads who fail to take passenger safety seriously, and who continue to delay taking legally required action. Officials note Positive Train Control systems will save lives by stopping preventable train crashes, an issue railroads should take seriously.

How Does Positive Train Control Work?

Positive Train Control (PTC) is a system of advanced technology using GPS and other sensors designed to prevent serious train crashes. This technology monitors the train’s position and speed and can enforce speed restrictions, preventing a train from traveling too quickly in a speed restricted zone. It also uses information from the train and track signals to ensure trains travel down authorized tracks.

The system allows computers to take control of a train if the engineer loses control of that train, misses a signal or travels too quickly through a section of track. The computer can slow down or stop a train entirely if necessary. It can also tell if there is an obstacle ahead on the tracks—such as a parked train—and stop the train from reaching the obstacle.

Initially, positive train control requirements were developed with a deadline of 2015 for implementation, but in late 2015 Congress extended the deadline to the end of 2018. Even with the extra three years, officials estimate up to two-thirds of the commuter railroads in the U.S. will not meet the deadline.

Among the crashes that will be prevented by Positive Train Control:

  • Crashes linked to excessive speed;
  • Train-into-train crashes;
  • Train travel on unauthorized sections of track (such as where maintenance is being done); and
  • Train travel guided by improperly set track switches.

By preventing these crashes, train passengers, train crews, and track maintenance crews are kept safer than without PTC. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board notes that as of 2015, at least 145 train crashes that killed 288 people and injured 6,574 since 1969 could have been prevented by positive train control, while 23 people died and more than 300 were injured between 2008 when Congress first mandated use of positive train control and 2015, the initial deadline.

How Long Will It Take For Commuter Railroads to Implement Positive Train Control?

According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 29 commuter railroads are required to implement Positive Train Control by December 31, 2018. Of those, anywhere from 7 to 19 commuter railroads failed to complete important milestones as of March 1, 2018, indicating that they would not fully implement the system by the deadline. This failure is despite the fact that there has already been at least one extension to the PTC implementation deadline.

Specifically, there were six milestones linked to key activities that would either ensure the railroads met the positive train control system deadline or qualify for an extension. Those milestones include field testing, which the FRA says should take at least a year, yet many commuter railroads planned to start field testing less than a year before the deadline.

Failure to implement positive train control or receive an extension can result in fines from the FRA starting in 2019. Such fines could run up to more than $27,000 per day. Amtrak has said it may prohibit railroads without Positive Train Control from using its tracks.

Freight railroads have reportedly made more progress than commuter railroads, with approximately 85 percent of freight railroads having PTC hardware installed in all locomotives by March 31, 2018, compared with only 60 percent of all commuter railroads. The system is reportedly only operational on 25 percent of all passenger train tracks.

Why Are Critics Concerned About Additional Delays?

Officials have linked multiple fatal train crashes in recent years to a lack of Positive Train Control, increasing the urgency of having commuter railroads properly implement the system. Critics have said that passenger, crew and track worker safety is put in jeopardy by each delay in having functional Positive Train Control. Among those who are critical of railroads for not implementing the Positive Train Control system are members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“We have recommended PTC for decades,” said National Transportation Safety Board member Bella Dinh-Zarr. “Unfortunately the deadline has 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.”

New Jersey Transit Asks for PTC Deadline Extension

Among the railroads that have already admitted they will not make the Positive Train Control implementation deadline is New Jersey Transit, which asked for a two-year extension to install PTC. To be eligible for the extension, New Jersey Transit and other railroads are required to meet certain benchmarks, including having all system hardware installed and having all employees trained.

It’s not a small task for New Jersey Transit, with more than 400 locomotives and 326 miles of track requiring hardware, and 100 radio towers needing installation. In all, more than 1,000 employees must also be trained in the use of Positive Train Control systems. The system must also be compatible with Amtrak’s Positive Train Control system as both railroads share track along the Northeast Corridor. New Jersey Transit’s system must also be compatible with Norfolk Southern, CSX and Contrail as those freight railroads use New Jersey Transit’s tracks.

In June 2018, federal officials approved New Jersey Transit’s application for an extension.

BNSF Requests Deadline Extension

BNSF also requested a deadline extension, although in its case the railroad said it would be ready for PTC, but some railroads that used its tracks would not be. In a letter to its customers and a statement, the railroad said that under FRA interpretation of the law, full implementation would not be achieved until all trains, including non-BNSF trains, were PTC compliant. In some cases, there were issues with interoperability between BNSF systems and other railroads.

What Crashes Could PTC Have Prevented?

Chatsworth, California, 2008

Congress first required positive train control implementation following a tragic 2008 train crash in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people and injured 135 others. The train’s driver was reportedly sending and receiving text messages in the moments before the Metrolink commuter train missed a red light, putting it on a collision course with a Union Pacific freight train.

The engineer, Robert Martin Sanchez, died in the crash.

After investigating the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the crash was caused by the engineer’s failure to recognize and respond to a red signal, but the agency also found that a contributing factor was the lack of a Positive Train Control system.

Before the crash, some local railroads, such as Long Island Railroad, had similar systems. But national systems were not implemented.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In May 2015, an Amtrak train traveling at two times the speed limit derailed, killing eight people and injuring 200. The train was moving along the Northeast Corridor, an area between Washington and Boston that did not have Positive Train Control. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the engineer was distracted by radio chatter, leading to him misjudging the speed of that section of track and entering a curve too fast. But the organization found that the lack of PTC contributed to the crash.

Texas, 2016

In June 2016, a freight train missed a stop signal in the Texas Panhandle and crashed into another freight train, killing three crew members. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the section of track involved in the accident did not have Positive Train Control installed and found that the system might have prevented the crash.

DuPont, Washington, 2017

In December 2017, Amtrak Cascades 501 was traveling on an initial journey with paying customers from Seattle to Portland. As it traveled on a new section of the route, the train derailed, killing three people and injuring more than 100. An investigation found the train was traveling at more than 50 miles per hour over the speed limit in the section of track where it derailed.

According to the NTSB, that particular section of track had Positive Train Control in place, but not activated.

Cayce, South Carolina, 2018

In February 2018, an Amtrak train carrying 136 passengers and nine crew members from New York to Miami collided with a CSX freight train. Two people died and more than 100 were injured after the Amtrak train was diverted from the main track to a side track, where the CSX train was parked. The Amtrak train’s conductor and engineer both died in the crash.

Officials noted that a fully functional Positive Train Control system would likely have prevented the accident.

PTC was invented some 40 years ago. The railroad industry has known for many years that it saves lives and protects property, yet foot-dragging has characterized its response to implementation. The Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration must make it absolutely clear—no more extensions. Lives lost after the deadline should be treated as criminal matters, not simply the subject of fines. In this manner, enforcement might have some teeth.