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Keep pressure on rail safety deadline

May 24, 2018
In The News

Imagine having the technology to prevent decades of airline or automobile catastrophes but not implementing it.

It’s unthinkable, and yet, since 1969, the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 148 railway accidents and determined that Positive Train Control, a system that slows or stops a train using automated brakes, could have prevented all of them.

Those accidents resulted in 298 deaths and nearly 7,000 injuries. Among the preventable carnage: three deaths and more than 60 injuries south of Tacoma last December, on the inaugural run of Amtrak’s Point Defiance bypass route.

Accident avoidance systems have been available since the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2008, after a commuter train in Los Angeles collided with a freight train and killed 25 people, that Congress finally mandated PTC be installed on all major rail lines. Lawmakers gave the industry a 2015 deadline to implement the satellite-based system.

Railroad executives lobbied against it, claiming the fiber-optic network was expensive and the deadline unrealistic.

The Federal Railroad Administration estimated the cost of installing PTC would be around $10 billion and maintaining it over the next 20 years would cost another $3 billion to $8 billion.

Congress relented and gave them until 2018 and in some cases 2020.

Had lawmakers held the industry to the initial deadline, it’s unlikely the Portland-bound train rolling out of Tacoma Dome Station one week before Christmas would have violently derailed. In testimony last week, the head of the Federal Railway Administration acknowledged the accident was clearly the result of the kind of human failure that PTC would have counteracted.

Amtrak Cascades train 501 ended up barreling into the DuPont curve at 80 mph, nearly triple the speed limit. Memories of that train dangling over the I-5 overpass fueled Washington Senator Patty Murray last week as she grilled top federal rail officials before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Murray pushed the FRA chief for evidence of progress in meeting the Dec. 31 deadline, and pressed Amtrak’s CEO on crew training improvements. “We are less than seven months away from this deadline. When will FRA make a decision so that railroads realize there will be consequences for failing to meet that deadline?” Murray asked.

In the aftermath of the DuPont tragedy, Murray is right to demand answers. She’s requested frequent updates from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on PTC implementation.

Chao has been an advocate for the congressionally mandated milestones, but in a letter to an Alaska Railroad chief in December, she revealed reservations the deadline could be met, noting that “many” railroads would have to “greatly accelerate” their efforts.

Washington state has seen too many rail accidents to let another deadline pass.

In June 2016, an oil train derailed in the Columbia River Gorge, spilling 42,000 gallons of crude. The following year an Amtrak train derailed near Chambers Bay golf course after approaching a drawbridge too fast; fortunately, nobody was hurt.

U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck have sent letters to federal regulators saying PTC must be given top priority. And in March, Sen. Maria Cantwell brought her concerns to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Cantwell pressed Richard Anderson, president and CEO of Amtrak, on improving situational awareness for engineers. She also asked if Amtrak would take a hard line of no more commuter rail transportation without PTC.

Anderson replied the system would be on all Cascades routes by the end of the year, but conceded there would be “significant sections of passenger rail operations without PTC” in other parts of the country.

Internal assessments suggest a dozen railroads are in jeopardy of missing the deadline, which is why Washington’s delegation must continue blowing the whistle of accountability and demand maximum penalties for those that fall short.

Time’s up on implementing this critical rail-safety technology. Without excuses, the nation’s railways and regulators need to get on board.