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Derailment prompts questions about delays in implementing positive train control

Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., speaks to Sinclair Broadcast Group on Capitol Hill on Dec. 20, 2017. (SBG)

As investigators work to reconstruct the circumstances leading to a fatal Amtrak train derailment in Washington Monday, they may find that a key safety measure Congress has been pressing the railroad industry to adopt for years could have made a difference.

Positive train control (PTC) is a system integrated into trains and tacks designed to compensate for human errors that often lead to train accidents by ensuring that signals, speed limits, and other rules are being followed. While the technology had been installed on the stretch of track where the derailment occurred, it was not scheduled to be online and operational until mid-2018.

The National Transportation Safety Board has sent a team to investigate the crash scene south of Tacoma, where 13 of the 14 cars on Amtrak train 501 jumped the tracks, several of them plunging off a bridge onto the road below. Three people were killed and many others were injured.

It is not yet clear whether functional PTC actually would have prevented Monday’s crash. An NTSB official said it was designed to prevent accidents like this, but further investigation is needed to establish why this specific incident occurred.

Though the investigation is in the early stages, the tragedy has already sparked a new urgency to get the technology in place across the country. Lack of PTC has been listed as a factor in more than two dozen train crashes over the last 20 years.

PTC technology is not new, but the railroad industry has been slow to adopt it despite deadlines imposed and repeatedly extended by Congress. Executives complained about the cost and some technical issues associated with it, and they threatened to shut rail systems down if extensions were not granted.

According to the Associated Press, officials have estimated railroads will spend a total of about $10 billion to install and implement PTC systems. As of July, PTC was in place on only 23 percent of passenger routes and 37 percent of freight routes in the U.S.

The current deadline to implement PTC is in 2018, with extensions to 2020 possible under certain conditions. In the wake of the Amtrak derailment, members of Congress are already signaling an unwillingness to delay the process further, but there also is not much they can do to speed it up.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said on the Senate floor Tuesday that Congress has a “moral obligation” to ensure that railroads meet the 2018 ultimatum.

“We are failing Americans – and putting lives at risk – if we do not hold railroads accountable,” he said.

“How many must die on our rails in tragedies like Hoboken, the Bronx, Philly and now Dupont before proven, life-saving, PTC is fully implemented?” tweeted Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. “Let’s get this done.”

House lawmakers were hesitant to discuss the crash or corrective measures in depth Wednesday without further information from the NTSB about what happened and why.

“All I know is what I’ve read in the newspaper,” said Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas. “We haven’t had any hearings on this yet. I heard speed had something to do with it.”

Beyond with the regulations currently in place, Babin, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, suggested more could be done to avert derailments and other disasters in the future.

“Positive train control, speed, there’s a lot of things that could be talked about in terms of making it a little safer on the rails for us,” he said.

Whether it could have prevented this crash or not, Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., said PTC is an important feature to implement in general.

“It’s a valuable safety measure,” he said. “We’re going to continue advocating for adequate funding for innovations like this.”

In the past, according to Kilmer, railway funding has fallen short.

“I think for a long time there’s been inadequate funding for Amtrak and more broadly for our infrastructure,” he said.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he is a member of, may play some role in addressing the issues raised by the crash as well.

“I’m curious they could have all these trial runs and not have a problem and then all of a sudden on their inaugural run they have this huge problem at a critical intersection,” he said.

If nothing else, Schrader believes the postponement of PTC implementation must end.

“It takes a while to put new technology into play, but I don’t think we’ll be extending that timeline anytime soon,” he said.

As the investigation proceeds, Kilmer expects Congress will gain more clarity about how to shore up railway safety and protect passengers.

“The NTSB is going to though the investigation phase and hopefully we’ll see exactly what happened and most importantly how this can be prevented going forward,” he said.

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