Train Speed Control Plans Still on Same Long Timeline After Amtrak Derailment

By @zachfeldman
Written on Jul 24, 2015

As a survivor of Amtrak’s train 188 derailment that occurred in early May, I was hoping that after the disaster, positive change would be enacted to prevent similar crashes. I was hopeful when I began receiving letters from the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) about an ongoing investigation into the incident that this might accelerate the process of change. Although the exact cause hasn’t been ascertained, we do now know for certain that the train was going twice as fast as it should have been and a Positive Train Control (PTC) system, which is installed on the other side of the tracks but not on the side the incident occurred on, could’ve prevented this accident. Considering the conductor “doesn’t remember what happened” before the crash, him knowing about the upcoming curve doesn’t seem like it would’ve helped much.

Amtrak has been mandated by congress to install a Positive Train Control system by December 31st, 2015. However, it should be noted that this was the deadline in place before the accident occurred. Now that an accident has occurred, shouldn’t these plans be accelerated? This mandate was made in October 2008. Has it really taken 7 years to install this technology? Are they really going to finish this system when only half of it has been done so far? “On the Northeast Corridor alone, 206 of the 401 miles of track are outfitted with PTC.” Source. According to Amtrak, they’ve only installed a signal to let the engineer know that they should slow down since the accident, but if the engineer is incapacitated as the engineer on 188 seems to have been, nothing can stop that train.

I still haven’t received an apology or any calls from the Amtrak Board of Directors related to this incident so I have to assume that they still feel pretty insulated from what happened. Enough for them to go through the effort to release a statement to “the public” instead of speaking personally with those who were on the train. Apparently enough to not make any meaningful changes to the plans that they already have.

I will be in physical therapy for the next few months and know others who are in far worse shape. I only speak for myself when I say that I’m extremely disappointed that the deadline for Positive Train Control to be installed has not changed, making our regional transit system just as unsafe as the night of the incident. You read that right, we still need to wait another 5 months for this system to be installed, if it meets the deadline - how often does that happen with government projects?

Read my full post on why Amtrak should apologize at apologizeamtrak.com

Here is a quote from the NTSB itself in a recent e-mail exchange after more details on the accident came out:

“Additionally, I was informed that you had questions relating to speed limitation technology as it relates to this accident investigation. Positive Train Control (PTC) systems which are designed to prevent over-speed derailments which occurred in this accident have been recommended by the NTSB for several railroad accidents in the past and continues to be a top recommendation by our agency in passenger rail safety. Concerning the Amtrak 188 railroad accident, the NTSB has identified that an operational PTC system would have prevented this accident. Congress had also mandated that railroads implement PTC by December 31, 2015 and this was an area of review by Congress during their Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing. The area where the Amtrak 188 accident occurred did not had a PTC system installed at the time of the accident. As mentioned, NTSB continues to advocate with this type of technology for passenger rail.

- NTSB Representative, July 15th, 2015

Continues to advocate…but apparently no changes? What?

“…am I to understand that after this crash, Amtrak has not moved up the time line at all for Positive Train Control systems on that area of track and is instead sticking to the time line that caused this accident?”

- Me (Zach Feldman)

“Unfortunately, I do not have any information about specific details as it relates to Amtrak’s implementation plans with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) concerning the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) systems on tracks that currently do not have this technology installed. Although NTSB continues to advocate heavily for the implementation of PTC systems across this country and we have identified PTC would have prevented the Amtrak 188 accident, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is the regulatory agency responsible for ensuring Amtrak meets the requirements of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (Act) and would be the agency responsible for implementing any additional requirements or emergency orders. At this time, I am not aware of any new requirements established by the FRA for Amtrak”

- NTSB Representative, July 24th, 2015

When I tried to reach someone via phone at the Federal Railroad Administration to discuss this (referred by NTSB), I wasn’t able to and got a “mailbox was never setup” error. Sounds like we’re in good hands.

If Amtrak wants to gain back the trust of the public and make their trains safer than they were the night of May 12th, they’ll need to install this system much faster. Otherwise we’ll have to rely on human drivers which, judging by recent evidence, is a flawed system.





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